Today, March 8, 2012 we join women across the country – and across the globe – in celebration International Women’s Day. Here at Insiders Health we have chosen three influential women to recognize. Each of these women, in her own way, has contributed to standing up for women’s rights: physically, mentally, and emotionally. Join us as we highlight the works of Jean Kilbourne, Somaly Mam and Betty Ford.
As advocates of quality healthcare and patient rights, we are all too familiar with the inequities that face the world’s women. Our medical issues have become planks of political debate. Our decisions have become targets for moral intervention. We are often underrepresented or misrepresented, objectified, sexualized and stigmatized. But just as there are injustices, there are those who fight against them to ensure that women’s rights and health prevail.
One such figure is Somaly Mam, a Cambodian native who has devoted her new life to ending one of the today’s worst violations of women: human sex trafficking. Sex trafficking is a modern-day form of slavery in which sex is provoked by force or coercion for commercial profit. This brutal business is the third most lucrative criminal industry in the world, raking in about $12 billion a year and enslaving as many as 2 million women and children across the globe. Under this practice, victims are taken from their families—sometimes kidnapped, sometimes sold—forced into prostitution, and routinely raped and beaten by clients and pimps alike. If they try to escape, they risk being killed… a danger that they are reminded of everyday.
Mam was one such victim, suffering unspeakable horrors during her early years as a young pawn of the sex trade. She grew up in provincial Cambodia in the mid-70s, during the terrorizing reign of the Khmer Rouge Communist party. The party’s extreme idea of “social engineering” led to the torture and mass genocide of the tribal people, like Mam’s family. During this this time, Mam was orphaned or abandoned and sought refuge in a small Phnong village. It was there that she was adopted by a man who promised to find her parents, but instead treated Mam as his indentured slave. He abused her until she was about 14, when he sold her to a brothel. She joined a ring of other children who were pushed into prostitution and subjected to torture and beating if they did not comply. Eventually, Mam was forced to marry a man who fought for the same radical faction that orphaned her. This husband acted as her pimp and would sell her to as many as six other men a day. If she ever refused to have sex with them, she would be locked in a cellar with snakes and scorpions, only to be raped anyway.
And these were not the worst scare tactics used to keep Mam in line. One fateful night, she was forced to watch her best friend get brutally murdered and was promised a similar a fate if she ever disobeyed. It was after this devastating experience that Mam finally worked up the courage to escape. With the help of an aid worker, she was able to flee to France, leaving her captors and that life of violence behind.
But she did not leave the memories behind. On the contrary, she was still haunted by recollections of her past and appalled to learn that sex trafficking was a reality that extended beyond Cambodian borders. She took this revelation as a call to action, vowing to put an end to this horrendous crime.
She started where it all began for her, returning to Cambodia and the hub of its sex trafficking business. While working as a nurse for Doctors Without Borders, she handed out soap, condoms and information to women in the brothels. She wanted them to know that, even though they felt hopeless, afraid and even indebted, they had options.
She then founded an organization called Acting for Women in Distressing Situations (or the French acronym AFESIP) which served to rescue, house and rehabilitate victims of sexual exploitation. These victims will often exhibit several physical and psychological effects as a result of the abuse. Many become addicted to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism or suffer physical injuries like broken bones or vaginal tears. They are also at risk for sexually transmitted diseases, miscarriages, sterility, diseases like hepatitis and malaria, and the physical and emotional consequences of forced abortions. They can experience severe feelings of shame, distrust, hatred of men, suicidal tendencies, depression, insomnia, and other symptoms of complex Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). These are all effects that are addressed during rehabilitation to ensure that the women are healthy and able to adjust to life after slavery.
With the help of activists Jared Greenberg and Nicholas Lumpp, ASESIP became the Somaly Mam Foundation, a more powerful movement with the intention of “envisioning a world where women and children are safe from slavery.” On the website, Mam states “I’ve committed my life to fighting this horrible scourge on humanity. Seeing innocent young women and children whose lives have been forever scarred leaves no doubt that they need a champion who is willing to invest all their time and energy towards eradicating the shameful practice of human trafficking." The organize supports activists and other grassroots initiatives that have the same intention of ridding the world of sex slavery. In the interim, Mam’s mission is to help the victims who have not been able to escape these circumstances and empower those who have survived the vicious system.
Her philanthropic efforts are not without risk. Brothel leaders in Cambodia and surrounding areas were enraged with Mam and the threat her mission posed for their business. They rely on fear to control their slaves and Mam’s support and education weakened that hold. In 2006, they retaliated by kidnapping, drugging and raping her then-14-year-old daughter. It was a warning to Mam, and to other activists, to give up the initiative and let the industry carry on as it had for years. Although this was a devastating blow to Mam and her family, she was not so easily swayed by their terrorism; she had already learned that lesson. After getting her daughter back, she took up her mission with even more fervor and an increased dedication to ending their reign of fear.
Through awareness, support and tireless activism, she has and will continue to save lives. She also continues to be an advocate for women’s rights and a testament to the power of one person to enact global change. She is one individual whose efforts we should celebrate this International Women’s Day and whose example we should emulate in our collective quest for equality and health.