Every shop, home and average Joe on the street has a ‘side business’; booking tickets, finding a room or just giving ‘generous’ advice. It’s all about luring customers. Rules are flexible and tolerance high. Much to the delight of some very satisfied tourists; all tanned and stuffed from indulgences they can’t afford back home.
But the gloss barely camouflages the gory details. I cringed at the sight of flabby retirees with teenage ‘girlfriends’. Regardless of the time or location, their faces are painted with gaudy make-up and cheery smiles. They dote on the men like lovers and the men are only too happy to be fooled by the farce.
Sadly, the situation gets less shocking as you spend more time here, eventually choosing to look away and fake the modicum of normalcy required to share the same spaces as them. But the truth is hard to ignore for long. Many of the girls are enslaved by the brothels who bought them from family members and friends who accompanied them to the cities. The story was familiar: girls, some as young as six, being lured under the pretext of getting a good job, while they end up being drugged, raped repeatedly and tortured into submission.
While in Pnom Penh, I went to meet a young girl who was the victim of similar circumstances. Sina Vann was born in Vietnam and sold into prostitution in Cambodia when she was barely 13. She spent three drug addled years as a sex slave in a brothel before being rescued in a police raid. The raid was organised by The Somaly Mam foundation, an anti-slavery organisation headed by Somaly Mam, a former victim of trafficking.
Sina told me she had felt hopeless during those years. “Between the drugs, torture and forced sex, your spirit breaks. You stop dreaming and lose the ability to trust anyone. The men who come to these brothels see the beautiful faces and not the pain in the girl’s eyes”. Sina chokes, recounting her first few days. She didn’t speak any Khmer or English and begged the white man who had bought her virginity to help her. He didn’t. If she protested or disobeyed she was starved and locked in a dungeon beneath the brothel.
Sina says wants to spend her life helping other victims because she understands the hell they’re living in. She explains it’s easier for her to communicate with girls and for them to trust her because of her past. Now at 25, Sina is leading the ‘Voices for Change’ programme at the Somaly Mam Foundation. The programme encourages trafficking survivors to share their stories and rehabilitates rescued girls with language, computers and vocational skills.
Sina said, “People need to know the truth about girls living as sex slaves. This is not the life they dreamed of, I wanted to be a lawyer but that Sina died at the brothel. Working to rescue other girls is my life till I die”.
Sina gave me a warm hug as I bid her goodbye. I lingered in her embrace, feeling empowered by this remarkable woman. This time around, I choked.
Tithiya Sharma is on a year-long journey across the globe to find 100 everyday heroes — and hopefully herself — along the way.