Somaly Mam, a former child prostitute, provides refuge for others caught in Cambodia's sex industry.
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- Sometimes this job makes you mad; sometimes it makes you happy. You have good days, hard days, hot days, hectic days. But however stressful, tiring or elating assignments get, there is one thing that keeps me coming back for more: the people we meet.
One of those people is Somaly Mam. She is humbling, courageous and exudes an inner-strength and warmth that is contagious. Somaly was forced into prostitution when she was just 12, and endured horrific ordeals at the hands of the sex tourists and home-grown brothel clients, even seeing her best friend shot dead in front of her.
Finally, she escaped. But she couldn't forget the children she'd seen held as sex slaves. She decided to set up her own charity to rescue them, and so far more than 150 have been brought out of the darkness into her refuge.
One in particular has touched her heart: 6-year-old Srey. Srey was sold by her mother to a brothel on the border with Thailand. After a police raid, Somaly took care of little Srey, who came to her timid, quiet and damaged. She is very ill: HIV positive, suffering from tuberculosis and pneumonia. Somaly says Srey talks of being raped in the past.
I look into Srey's little face and try to imagine the horror those large, brown eyes have seen. We have concerns about filming her. But Somaly and I are reassured: we filmed with Srey a couple of months ago, as sensitively and gently as we could, and it went well.
Our report generated a huge response last time and it's encouraging to see Srey has gained a little weight and seems much healthier than before. (Read Dan Rivers' story about Srey and the horrors she endured
We've come back to find out how she's doing, to find out more about her story and to highlight this awful issue for Anderson Cooper, who has been anchoring his "360" program from Southeast Asia this week.
We play with Srey and the other children, and when we feel Srey is relaxed, we gradually introduce the camera. Somaly reads a story and Srey seems oblivious to my cameraman and sound recordist. Somaly knows Srey is a potent symbol. It's difficult to imagine a more innocent, vulnerable victim of Cambodia's sex trade.
We're careful never to show Srey's face. She speaks only Khmer and is unaware of what we talking about. I still feel uneasy, but Somaly is adamant that the world must know about children like Srey.
It's estimated by the charities that work in Cambodia that perhaps 30 percent of people working in the sex trade are children. The Cambodia women's affairs ministry puts the figure at 40 percent. With a sex industry comprised of 80,000 to 100,000 people, that means that perhaps between 24,000 and 40,000 people under 16 years of age are having their childhood stolen in the most horrendous ways. And that's just in Cambodia. Child prostitution is a problem all over the world.
We finish and give high fives to Srey, who then comes to the door to wave goodbye. She's heading back to the refuge now, as the sun smears the Cambodian sky butter yellow. As we drive back to our hotel, we pass the red-light district where the first girls are beginning to appear for another night on the streets. I wonder how many other young children like Srey are being offered for sale tonight and how long Srey will survive before the onslaught of AIDs will claim that fragile little child.
Web site: Acting for Women in Distressing Situations