The Road of Lost Innocence: The true story of a Cambodian heroine who fled sexual slavery and now devotes her life to rescuing others
Somaly Mam and Lisa Appignanesi, 2007
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Somaly Mam is a woman worthy of enormous admiration. Her autobiography, The Road of Lost Innocence, is an incredibly harrowing and eye-opening story as to the reality of the sex slavery industry in Cambodia and South East Asia in general. Mam has endured a shockingly abusive childhood; left by her parents from a young age, she was sold to a stranger by her only remaining relative to be wed into an arranged marriage and finally sold to a brothel. She has suffered unimaginable violence, rape and cruelty. Yet she asserts that her story is in no way atypical for a young Cambodian girl. The choice of subtitle for her book, The True Story of A Cambodian Childhood, pays testament to this reality. Mam’s writing paints a bleak and unforgiving portrait of Cambodian society, but she also offers insightful explanations into why the sex trade industry may continue to be so accepted and engrained in her native country. First published in France under the title Le Silence de L’innocence in 2005, the English version, translated by Lisa Appignanesi, was first published in 2007.
The Road of Lost Innocence is moving on many levels. Primarily, there is the raw pain of the injustice suffered by Mam, which is accentuated by her simple writing style and humble tone. Then there is the reminder of the amount of suffering endured by women and girls in South East Asia due to the prolificacy of the sex trade industry. It is thought that there are 11.7 million people in forced labour in the Asia Pacific region, the majority of whom are women and girls. Virgins are sold for high prices. Finally and perhaps most significantly, there is the admiration Mam inspires due to her work to counter these trends. Having escaped a life of forced prostitution, she co-founded AFESIP- Agir Pour les Femmes en Situation Précaire (Acting for Women in Distressing Circumstances). Her autobiography recalls the organisation’s inception from its humble origins as a small, overcrowded shelter in the outskirts of Phnom Penh to its current status as a multi-national body that operates across Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. The organisation is largely funded by the Somaly Mam Foundation (SMF), which was established in 2007 as “a funding vehicle to support victim services organizations, eradicate slavery through global advocacy, and to empower survivors to be part of the solution to end trafficking”.
Mam is now a globally recognised humanitarian figure due to her work to challenge the sex trafficking industry and to empower its survivors. She has received countless awards, including the Prince of Asturias Award for International Cooperation in 1998 and the Glamour Woman of the Year award in 2006. In 2009, she was named as one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People and in 2011 was included in the Guardian’s Top 100 Women: Activists and Campaigners. Yet despite this worldly recognition, in her writing Mam remains very modest; she is frank about the lasting impact of her ordeal on her life today. In this way, it is a poignantly personal story and is very touching. Not only has she suffered physical and emotional abuse based on her gender, she has also endured racism from Cambodia’s majority Khmers because of belonging to an ethnic minority group, the Phnong, and having dark skin.
I found a considerable amount to learn about post-Pol Pot Cambodian society from this book. Most of this was uncomfortably negative. Mam suggests that the legacy of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge era has blown a hammer to family values and left a shattered society overly focused on the individual. Yet traditional views towards the role of women and girls remain: they are expected to unconditionally obey their parents and are often seen as “money on legs”. These two factors, Mam suggests, have allowed the development of a society that deems both the sale of girls into prostitution by their families and the use of prostitutes (often children) by men as acceptable. Consequently, according to a 2005 report by Cambodian non-governmental organisation The Future Group, ‘it can be expected that at least one in forty girls born in Cambodia will be sold into sex slavery’.
Considering this disturbing reality, It is encouraging that AFESIP and the Somaly Mam Foundation now reach as many women and girls across South East Asia as they do. Since its establishment in 1996, AFESIP has “rescued, rehabilitated and reintegrated over 4,000 women and children”, providing them with healthcare, education, psychological support and the means to begin a better life. Besides this, a crucial element of AFESIP’s work is in changing perspectives towards sex trafficking and the use of prostitutes in order to challenge the problem from its roots. One way in which this is done is through sex education classes for men. Another way is through the ‘Somaly’s Family’ radio show broadcast from Phnom Penh, in which trafficking survivors speak out about modern-day slavery to a regional audience. The show aired fifty-nine times last year.
The Road of Lost Innocence is a testament to the importance of the work of AFESIP and the relevance that the issues of sex trafficking and slavery still hold today. Moreover, it is a well-written and engaging story with many tender, heart-breaking moments. Mam’s story is horrifying, but more shocking is the reality that her story is not unique. I would recommend this book to anybody and everybody as a source of information about the unforgivable abuses of women and girls that occur every day around the world. Furthermore, I would recommend this book as the story of an incredibly brave and inspiring women who has turned a horrendous ordeal into an opportunity to help thousands of people who have shared her experiences. It would be too much to call this book uplifting, as the pain Mam evidently still feels resonates through the narrative. Yet Somaly Mam is undoubtedly an awe-inspiring individual, to whom I feel great respect. I would also encourage everybody to visit the websites of AFESIP and the Somaly Mam Foundation to find out more about Mam’s work and to donate to an exceptionally worthy cause.