Barack Obama’s presidency marks a
triumph over the legacy of slavery, so it would be particularly
meaningful if he led a new abolitionist movement against 21st-century
slavery – like the trafficking of girls into brothels.
thinks it is hyperbole to describe sex trafficking as slavery should
look at the maimed face of a teenage girl, Long Pross.
Pross from her left, and she looks like a normal, fun-loving girl, with
a pretty face and a joyous smile. Then move around, and you see where
her brothel owner gouged out her right eye.
Yes, I know it’s hard
to read this. But it’s infinitely more painful for Pross to recount the
humiliations she suffered, yet she summoned the strength to do so – and
to appear in a video posted online with this column – because she wants people to understand how brutal sex trafficking can be.
was 13 and hadn’t even had her first period when a young woman
kidnapped her and sold her to a brothel in Phnom Penh. The brothel
owner, a woman as is typical, beat Pross and tortured her with electric
current until finally the girl acquiesced.
She was kept locked deep inside the brothel, her hands tied behind her back at all times except when with customers.
owners can charge large sums for sex with a virgin, and like many
girls, Pross was painfully stitched up so she could be resold as a
virgin. In all, the brothel owner sold her virginity four times.
Pross paid savagely each time she let a potential customer slip away after looking her over.
was beaten every day, sometimes two or three times a day,” she said,
adding that she was sometimes also subjected to electric shocks twice
in the same day.
The business model of forced prostitution is
remarkably similar from Pakistan to Vietnam – and, sometimes, in the
United States as well. Pimps use violence, humiliation and narcotics to
shatter girls’ self-esteem and terrorize them into unquestioning,
One girl working with Pross was beaten
to death after she tried to escape. The brothels figure that occasional
losses to torture are more than made up by the increased productivity
of the remaining inventory.
After my last column,
I heard from skeptical readers doubting that conditions are truly so
abusive. It’s true that prostitutes work voluntarily in many brothels
in Cambodia and elsewhere. But there are also many brothels where
teenage girls are slave laborers.
Young girls and foreigners
without legal papers are particularly vulnerable. In Thailand’s
brothels, for example, Thai girls usually work voluntarily, while
Burmese and Cambodian girls are regularly imprisoned. The career
trajectory is often for a girl in her early teens to be trafficked into
prostitution by force, but eventually to resign herself and stay in the
brothel even when she is given the freedom to leave. In my blog, www.nytimes.com/ontheground, I respond to the skeptics and offer some ideas for readers who want to help.
herself was never paid, and she had no right to insist on condoms (she
has not yet been tested for HIV, because the results might be too much
for her fragile emotional state). Twice she became pregnant and was
subjected to crude abortions.
The second abortion left Pross in
great pain, and she pleaded with her owner for time to recuperate. “I
was begging, hanging on to her feet, and asking for rest,” Pross
remembered. “She got mad.”
That’s when the woman gouged out
Pross’s right eye with a piece of metal. At that point in telling her
story, Pross broke down and we had to suspend the interview.
eye grew infected and monstrous, spraying blood and pus on customers,
she later recounted. The owner discarded her, and she is now
recuperating with the help of Sina Vann, the young woman I wrote about
in my last column.
Sina was herself rescued by Somaly Mam, a trafficking survivor who started the Somaly Mam Foundation in Cambodia to fight sexual slavery. The foundation is working with Dr. Jim Gollogly of the Children’s Surgical Center in Cambodia to get Pross a glass eye.
“A year from now, she should look pretty good,” said Dr. Gollogly, who is providing her with free medical care.
Somaly saved Sina, and now Sina is saving Pross. Someday, perhaps Pross
will help another survivor, if the rest of us can help sustain them.
Obama administration will have a new tool to fight traffickers: the
Wilberforce Act, just passed by Congress, which strengthens sanctions
on countries that wink at sex slavery. Much will depend on whether Mr.
Obama and Hillary Clinton see trafficking as a priority.
would be powerful symbolism in an African-American president reminding
the world that the war on slavery isn’t yet over, and helping lead the
21st-century abolitionist movement.