Women

11.14.13

My Own 'Twelve Years A Slave'

Somaly Mam on the similarities between her life in Cambodia's trafficking rings and the tale of Solomon Northrup.

On Friday, November 1, Twelve Years a Slave opened in theatres nationwide propelling the topic of human trafficking and slavery to kitchen tables and water coolers across America. Solomon Northrup’s story is hard to watch. It’s violent, disturbing, and painful, but his story demands telling.

My story needed telling, too. And our stories have much in common. Though I was sold into slavery in Cambodia as a child, and Solomon in the United States as an adult, we both faced the brutal realities of slavery. We were both born free, but because of the cultural context in which we were raised, because of our skin color, and in my case gender, we were left completely vulnerable to the slave trade.

Unlike many slaves in the antebellum south, Solomon was not born into servitude. Rather, in 1841, this African American musician who resided in Manhattan was kidnapped by two white men, sold into slavery, and after 12 years, was finally rescued and reunited with his family. Nearly 130 years later, I was born deep in the Cambodian forest and following the devastating regime of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, my grandfather sold me into slavery, and my life was forever changed. For the many years, like Solomon, I was shuffled not from plantation to plantation, but from owner to owner.

Despite time and place, both Solomon and I were tricked and trafficked, and endured years of servitude, torture, and abuse, at the hands of men and women who saw us as nothing more than a commodity. Yet, we were determined to live, and we sought to share our stories with the world in the hopes that our stories could prevent this crime from happening to anyone else. In 1853, Solomon published Twelve Years a Slave. Over 150 years later, I published my story in The Road of Lost Innocence.

Sharing stories like ours is now more important then ever. A significant number of educated people believe that slavery ended in 1863, when in fact, modern slavery exists in every corner of the globe. Not just in remote parts of Southeast Asia, but in your hometown, in your backyard. In America, there are 60,000 men, women, and children enslaved at this very moment.

Global human trafficking is the second largest and fastest-growing organized crime in the world. There are an estimated 21 million people enslaved in the world today, 4.5 million of which are in the sex industry. Estimates for revenues in all forms of exploitation and slavery total upwards of $32 billion a year, and profits from sex slavery amount to nearly $10 billion. In 2012, Hollywood grossed $12 billion. Take a moment to think about that.

In June 2013, the U.S. State Department issued the most up to date Trafficking in Persons report, aka the TIP report, a global overview of the origins and scope of trafficking. In Cambodia, a country that is still recovering from the trauma of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, the trafficking of women and girls continues to be widespread, and the sale of virgin girls continues to be a problem. In our centers for recovery and rehabilitation, we work with girls as young as four years old, some who have been sold by their parents and grandparents into the sex trade.

Due to multiple factors including poverty, corruption, gender inequality, and oppressive cultural norms, Cambodia has yet to tackle this problem head on. In 2013, Cambodia fell to the Tier 2 watch list, the report’s second-lowest rank, for failing to “demonstrate evidence of overall increasing efforts to address human trafficking over the previous year.”

This must end. And I believe that storytelling has the power to make that change. At the Somaly Mam Foundation, through our Voices For Change program, we provide survivors with an opportunity to help themselves by helping others—to have their voices heard in the courts of law, in their communities, and worldwide, in order to move the needle on creating lasting cultural change.

In the United States, other brave survivors like Minh Dang, the Executive Director for Don’t Sell Bodies, and Rachel Lloyd, the Founder and Executive Director of GEMS, have used their stories as a platform to raise awareness of commercial trafficking and sexual exploitation, and to tirelessly advocate on behalf of its survivors.

It is my hope that their stories, my story, and Solomon’s story, will touch hearts and minds, in order to create next-generation change, and a society that says NO MORE to this heinous crime.