Editor’s note: Mira Sorvino, a human rights activist and Academy Award winning actress, went to Cambodia with the CNN Freedom Project to expose child sexual exploitation. This is an edited journal from her week in the country.
By Mira Sorvino, Special to CNN
Phnom Penh, Cambodia (CNN) – We have just landed in Phnom Penh, to begin one of the most important journeys I have ever embarked upon.
I have been an activist on the issue of human trafficking since 2004, the year I was expecting my first of four children. I was spokeswoman for Amnesty International’s Stop Violence Against Women campaign, which brought the issue of modern-day slavery to light for me. Before this, I was blissfully unaware that slavery was alive and well – it had just gone underground. Meeting survivors of human trafficking changed my life, and deepened my commitment to fighting this terrible scourge that affects most every country around the world.
Since 2009 I have been a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Goodwill Ambassador Against Human Trafficking, one of the greatest honors and challenges of my life. I have interviewed scores of survivors in many countries, as well as government officials, NGO workers, law enforcement and even a man responsible for sex trafficking about 4,000 girls from Latin America to European club-brothels.
I've also partnered with the CNN Freedom Project several times; this time I'm taking off my UN hat and joining forces with CNN to present this documentary. We are here to see why Cambodia continues be a hub of child sex trafficking and virgin sales, and what we can do to help expose the problem and suggest solutions.
I’ve never been to Cambodia, though I made a fictional movie, “Trade of Innocents,” about child sex trafficking in Cambodia (shot in nearby Thailand). I am excited to discover this new place, but feel trepidation over delving into our heartbreaking topic. FULL POST
Phnom Penh, Cambodia (CNN) – Today we drove out to Svay Pak, a slum notorious as a hub of child sex trafficking. There we met Don Brewster, a white haired, blue-eyed bespectacled man in flip-flops with a pleasant face and high energy. He runs Agape International Missions (AIM), a non-profit for trafficked and at risk children and teenagers. The residence, Rahab’s House, is filled with bustling energy with a school and a children’s center. It takes its name from an Old Testament prostitute who provided sanctuary and was blessed. He says this and every other building used by AIM is a former brothel."
Don takes me on a walking tour of Svay Pak; we pass “The Lord’s Gym,” a center Don started, filled with local guys—human traffickers-turned-kickboxers. How he did it: He invited a “power team” of U.S. bodybuilders to display their might through the streets, leading the young men to the gym to work out, where they are inspired by a coach who teaches them respect for women and children. They have traded the high money (they used to make U.S. $200 or more a month bringing girls in from Vietnam and selling them to brothels) for the prestige of being known pro-fighters. I'm very impressed by Don’s outside-the-box methodology, proving transformation is possible in this generation of young men.
As we continue our walk, Don points out a group, mostly men, sitting around a couple of tables at the end of road. They are all traffickers, he says: They sell not only other people’s children, but their own.
As we approach with the cameras, they start to disperse, like roaches exposed to the light. A feeling of utter revulsion and ire rises in me. I finally burst out: "It's not ok to sell children! It's not ok to sell children to pedophiles … The world is watching."
I felt so impotent with a rage that could do nothing in the moment. I felt a little ridiculous but I couldn’t walk away saying nothing.
Don felt we should move out of there quickly. Then we looked at each other and both started crying. I just can't stand it, that little children and teenagers are being hurt a stone’s throw away and we can’t get to them, can't swoop in like guardian angels and pluck them out of harm’s way; that those men and shifty-eyed women are using children for profit and going through with their ipso facto destruction without a shred of empathy or humanity. I’m crying again thinking about it. FULL POST
Phnom Penh, Cambodia (CNN) – This morning Don Brewster takes us to the Agape Restoration Center, a secure facility in Phnom Penh for the protection and development of the most-at-risk girls. We are brought through gates into a lush courtyard with pools and a gaggle of smiling young girls, awaiting our arrival.
I’m experiencing déjà vu ; the very first time I met young survivors of sex trafficking was when I pulled into a secret shelter deep in the heart of Mexico City, and hoped desperately that the smallest kids I saw were the sisters or daughters of victims. This time I know better: At least three girls I met today were just six years old and had been rescued from sex trafficking.
In the courtyard, we interviewed another young virgin sale victim. Kieu was probably somewhere between 13 and 14 (they have few birth records). She was very lovely with the shy expression of a young doe. She wore an intricate braid plaited in her hair, and a pretty green dress. She told of how she had been sold by her mother to a Khmer man of “maybe more than 50” who had three children of his own. The price set in advance for her virginity: $1,500, though she was ultimately only given $1,000, of which she had to give $400 to the woman who brought her to the man. Her mother used the money to pay down a debt and for food for the fish they raise under their floating house-their primary income source.
Beforehand, Kieu said, “I did not know what the job was and whether it was good for me. I had no idea what to expect. But now I know the job was not good for me.” After she lost her virginity to the man, she felt “very heartbroken.” Her mother supposedly felt bad too, but still sent her to work in a brothel. Kieu said she did not want to go, but had to. She said, “They held me like I was in prison.” FULL POST
Phnom Penh, Cambodia (CNN) – Today we scored a last-minute interview with Chou Ben Eng, the head of Cambodia’s Human Trafficking Task force: the Secretary of State of the Ministry of the Interior, and a woman to boot.
As I sat down I was impressed with her elegance (she wore a traditional floor-length silk-satin dress) and her forthrightness; she shook a firm hand and spoke excellent English. This interview would not need an interpreter.
I think it also allowed me to be a little more aggressive. I was tired of getting the pat answers, of the party lines. I had seen the reality of the victims’ pain and was not going to be so polite this time. She began by presenting the achievements of her working group. We then brought up the issue of the undercover authority for police in human trafficking cases. I had begun to realize that anything that was going to cost a big infusion of money might not be a realistic goal for us to press for in the here and now, but this bit of legislation, the explicit authorization for the use of undercover investigative methods and techniques, was something we could press for that might seriously change the equation in the pursuit of justice for this crime. FULL POST
Siem Reap, Cambodia (CNN) –Today we drove two hours north in rural Cambodia to meet with a group of student activists. As we arrived at the school, we saw a group of bright green t-shirted teenagers at a picnic table under a tree. Our youth leader, Han Hunlida (nickname: Lyly), was instructing her peers on their plan of action for the day: split into groups of four and go door-to-door in the community to share information about human trafficking and how not to become its victims.
This region, Banteay Meanchey, is a crossroads for Cambodians migrating for work into Thailand and Malaysia. They are all at great risk for being trafficked by wily recruiters, who prey on impoverished people desperate for work, without local savvy or support.
Lida, 16, is a tiny powerhouse. Inspired by a Somaly Mam Foundation visiting lecturer at her school two years ago, she is a Cambodian girl taking stewardship of her country and its future. I was stirred by her palpable compassion for the vulnerable and victimized. She emanated a kind of unstoppable positivity; her compatriots looked up to her, sharing in a powerful movement towards change. They were humble and excited at the same time and - very encouragingly - there were teenaged boys with them, not only girls. FULL POST
Siem Reap, Cambodia (CNN) –This morning we got up bright and early to go to the temples of Angkor Wat. It was a boiling hot day, and by 7 a.m. it was already beginning to swelter. We entered the long walkway across water and grass to the main temple complex.
This is the remnant of a very powerful, accomplished kingdom, and a source of great pride for the Cambodian people. The grey stone structures are slightly discolored from erosion, but their grandeur, imposing stature, and artistic accomplishment remain intact.
I chuckle to think that in the fictional feature film I made about child sex trafficking in Cambodia, “Trade of Innocents,” (all filmed in Thailand) we shot our climactic action scene in a replica set of Angkor Wat; the temple structures were made of wood and Styrofoam. Yet I have to hand it to our director Christopher Bessette and our art department; it really did look like the real thing, if only a small section of it. FULL POST
(CNN) – My time in Cambodia is over. On the plane and beyond, it is time for me to reflect.
One journalist told me that Khmer people smile all the time, no matter how unhappy they are. It made me think of some of the smiles I saw, like that of the sweet-faced general. Behind it does he really possess the will to step up the police response to this situation, and press for the authorization for undercover authority? I hope so.
At least one of our young heroines has seen her day in court and succeeded! Even though the perpetrators were charged on lesser crimes than trafficking and were only given three years as opposed to a stiffer sentence commensurate with the most serious offenses, it is a victory. Toha's bravery has paid off – and if they receive the payments due them from their traffickers they will feel even more vindicated. Hopefully this case a harbinger of more justice to come, and will reverse the trend of dwindling human trafficking arrests and convictions. This should send a message out that Cambodia is willing to try to convict those who exploit young girls, followed by vigorous law enforcement and legal action that can truly end the impunity the criminals now enjoy.
The problem remains: how do you teach someone not to sell their child? The interviews with the mothers of our three young survivors were eye-opening. Don admits they may not be successful at reaching this generation, athough Toha’s mother openly acknowledged Don’s assistance stopping her from selling another child. “If it gets worse again, this time I know I can ask for help.” FULL POST
A neighborhood in Cambodia is a global hotspot for the child sex trade. The people selling the children? Too often, their parents. CNN Freedom Project and Mira Sorvino, award-winning actress and human rights activist, investigate in a major new documentary, "Every Day in Cambodia", which airs for the first time on CNN International on Saturday at 10 a.m. CET.
Here is the story of three mothers, their children and the people trying to stop modern day slavery.
CNN is joining the fight to end modern-day slavery by shining a spotlight on the horrors of modern-day slavery, amplifying the voices of the victims, highlighting success stories and helping unravel the complicated tangle of criminal enterprises trading in human life. WHY WE'RE DOING THIS | MORE ABOUT THE PROJECT