Film School: Virginity Trade & The Girl Who Spelled Freedom
"Sometimes you can learn, even from a bad experience. By coping you become stronger. The pain does not go away, but it becomes manageable."
― Somaly Mam, The Road of Lost Innocence: The True Story of a Cambodian Heroine
One of my most vivid movie recollections from childhood is of the Wonderful World of Disney's The Girl Who Spelled Freedom (1986). It told the story of a Cambodian mother who fled from the horrors of war in her country with her six children to take refuge in the home of an American family. They learn to adapt to each other's cultural peculiarities and the young Linn Yann goes on to win the spelling bee. The best bit? It was based on a true story.
"When she arrived in Chattanooga from Cambodia in 1979, Linn was a frightened 9-year-old hiding behind her mother's skirt," reported People magazine in 1986. "She had been imprisoned for three years in Khmer Rouge labor camps with her five brothers and sisters, had worked in leech-filled paddies and foraged for berries, leaves and even rats to eat. She had never been to school and spoke not a word of English... Conditions in the camps, she explains, were much worse than those depicted in the film. Her father, a shopkeeper before the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975, became too ill to work, so he was taken away, never to return."
She had lost her father. Lost her home. A little girl lost in the world. But she found a home.
"Look at what you can overcome with study and a new chance at life!", I thought as a youngster. What excuse do I have to not work very hard at my own spelling? Linn Yann went on to graduate from DePauw University and work as an NBC reporter.
Back then, I didn't have an understanding of context. I knew nothing of Pol Pot or the Khmer Rouge or genocide; that one man's actions might lead to the undignified deaths, plight and displacement of people. That the self-interest and inaction of governments could cause evil to prevail. That the machinations of the planet were as equally as dependent on man's struggle for power as God's grand plan to win us over to Him. That numbers can numb us into complacency. Or that education is the key to enlightened living.
The makers of Cambodia: The Virginity Trade, like the people behind Invisible Children, know that many of us fail to pay attention when we hear of overwhelming statistics, more so when they are about people who we don't feel a connection to. We need to hear the stories of real people to share their pain – these stories can incite us to take immediate action, to break our hearts and say, "Enough's enough".
But we also need to see past the emotionalism and to the political and cultural nuances that make particular injustices real so we can better understand and figure out a way to help – this is the role of NGOs and writers and documentary makers who can rally the troops to apply just enough pressure to make things happen.
Cambodia: The Virginity Trade gives us the point of view of the girls who have been sold into sexual slavery, their virginity stolen from them in a country where virginity is a prized commodity, for hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars, because of mythology, misogyny and misconstrued male identity – layered on top of poverty, inequality and the legacy of colonialism and Pol Pot's regime.
For those unfamiliar with the history, Cambodia became a part of "French Indochina", a geographical, political, economic and cultural protectorate (i.e. a dependent part of the French empire), from 1863 until 1953. This was at the shrewd request of the Cambodian King Norodom in order to prevent Vietnam and Siam (Thailand), its two powerful neighbours, from swallowing Cambodia up.
Occupied by the Japanese during World War II, the French protectorate was re-imposed in 1946 but the country won its independence back from France in 1953. Meanwhile, the spread of communism, the "Red Tide", had begun. The scourge of the West, communism had to be contained; hence the Vietnam war which encroached on Cambodia killing up to 600,000 nationals as the Americans stamped out communist sanctuaries with links to North Vietnam.
The Cambodian army found itself fighting on two fronts: the communist guerrillas within and the North Vietnamese. In 1963, Saloth Sar (aka Pol Pot) had risen through the ranks of the Cambodian communist party, the Khmer Rouge, having been influenced by Marxist theory while studying in Paris and Maoist thought in China.
Pot became leader of the country in 1975 after the American-sanctioned leader Lon Nol was overthrown. He reset the clock to "Year Zero" and set about transforming the country into an ideal communist society marked by agrarian socialism.
Money, private property, religion and independent thought were abolished and Cambodians were forced out of cities and onto the agricultural communes where some perished from starvation and exhaustion and others were executed. The total death toll is estimated to be at least 1.7 million Cambodians.
The Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1979. From 1979 to 1997, Pot and a remnant of the old Khmer Rouge operated near the border of Cambodia and Thailand, where they clung to power, with nominal United Nations recognition as the rightful government of Cambodia. Pot was finally arrested by former colleagues in 1997 and sentenced to life under house arrest. He died in 1998.
But in the interim, we find a country reeling from decades of guerilla warfare, Vietnamese occupation, financial destabalisation, political confusion, high-ranking corruption and human rights violations. Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world and relies heavily on aid. The majority of its workforce is still employed in rural subsistence farming. The population lacks in education and skills and infrastructure. There is a lot of repair work to do.
This is the context in which we come to Cambodia: The Virginity Trade.
One of the country's most prized commodities is the virginity of its girls. These "unbroken", underage girls are sold by their families (rural, poor and ignorant) or stolen from villages to meet demand (and therein lies one problem: how to curb demand itself).
Once they have been "corrupted", they are then sold onto brothels, often trafficked into Thailand, where they become dependent – the brothel owners, corrupt police, the cycle of poverty and the shame of being impure entrap them.
"My living was desperate and I was in debt," says one mother. "I had to sell my daughter to someone. I sold her for $300. I went to see her in a brothel. She worked for the owner. My daughter has to work for the owner for one year to pay back the $300 debt. I feel so sorry for her. I love her so much."
This trafficking of girls, as young as four and five, from family home to dingy brothels and karaoke bars breaks their bodies and their spirits. One girl says she would rather be dead than live this life of servitude and shame.
"When I'm sitting in that room, looking through that window, I feel like I am worthless," says another girl. "I am like a fish at the market that someone comes and bargains for. There have probably been about... 700 men who have had sex with me this year. After my virginity was sold, I started working here. It's been just over a year."
The men interviewed, who fuel the sex trade, are unashamed about their involvement. No shame at all in paying $600 to have a 14-year-old's virginity. The men are high on porn, they say offhandedly, and looking to exert their power: gang rapes are not uncommon.
And, due to HIV, the girls are getting younger and younger: the men don't want to run the risk of having their prize tainted. There is a myth that sleeping with a virgin can cure AIDS and give you powers. So part of the effort to cure this culture of gross human depravity is education.
It is also about enforcing penalties for offenders. The trouble, as the movie addresses through interviews with officials, is that the Cambodian government brought in stronger penalties for trafficking, the new "Law on the Suppression of Human-Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation", which made life for women and girls caught up in sex trafficking much harder, driving much activity underground and imposing penalties on those who can least afford them.
If they are caught in a police raid and arrested, and the brothel owners don't pay for their release, they will be sent to detention centres or NGOs, thereby curbing their ability to filter money back to their families, unless they can get adequate financial support. Sex workers who wind up in detention centres after being arrested by police often face rape, beatings and extortion.
"We did not see that these centers served any rehabilitative purpose for these sex workers,” Elaine Pearson, acting Asia director for Human Rights Watch, told a press conference in Phnom Penh in 2010. "From beginning to end, those people who should really be protecting sex workers from violence and other abuses are in fact the ones who harm them."
One of the key figures fighting human trafficking in Cambodia is Somaly Mam. She began her life in Cambodia in extreme poverty and was sold into slavery by a man posing as her grandfather when she was 12. Forced to work in a brothel, she was tortured and raped on a daily basis. She was made to watch as her best friend was murdered.
She escaped her captors, fled to Paris and returned to Cambodia to help girls just like her. She now runs AFESIP (Agir Pour les Femmes en Situation Precaire) and The Somaly Mam Foundation and has published a book, The Road of Lost Innocence. She takes girls in, rehabilitates them and empowers them to create sustainable, satisfying lives untainted by their pasts. One of the Foundation's programs, modeled after Somaly's life, is called Voices for Change.
"VFC is designed to give survivors an opportunity to help themselves by helping others, to have their voices heard in the courts of law and public perception, and to have influence and impact on effectuating change. It is our vision that from those who have struggled through the pain of slavery will arise a new generation of leaders who stand for justice and free will."
One survivor sold into slavery when she was just six and helped by Mam is now studying law. Another girl who spelled freedom. And this is the key, I think, to help us: to remember that each one of these girls is an individual, a person, deserving of real love, security, a future and a hope. If this is ingrained, sewn into the fabric of life from the very start, then we are part of the way there. Let there be more girls who spelled freedom!
We can't all go to Cambodia to help, but we can support those who do by holding fundraisers and sponsoring individuals, particularly children who are more vulnerable, but also tomorrow's leaders. There are many organisations working towards liberating girls, boys, women and men from trafficking, and the poverty and lack of education that perpetuate it, in the Southeast Asia region. Mr Satchel and I have a particular interest in the work of Destiny Rescue, Cambodia
and also Compassion Australia. There are many, many more. Know of another one? Please let us know in the comments.
Somaly Mam, Sex Trafficking Survivor, Fights Slavery and HIV/Aids in Cambodia @ The Huffington Post
AusAID Anti-trafficking activities
Girl With a Satchel