Between 1975 and 1979, Cambodia was ruled by the Khmer Rouge party, led by Pol Pot. The Khmer Rouge is now known mainly for its policies that resulted in widespread famine, disease, and genocide. Two million people were forced out of the cities and into the countryside to work in the agricultural sector. Citizens were controlled in every aspect of their lives. Intellectuals and minorities were killed in high numbers. Children were separated from their parents, indoctrinated, and taught to fight. Anyone considered an enemy was arrested, tortured and executed. Various investigations put the death toll of the Khmer Rouge era anywhere between 1.7 million and 3 million people. Its four years of power has left a legacy of poverty and violence that still permeates life in Cambodia today.
A few years before the Khmer Rouge came to power, Somaly Mam was born into a minority family living deep in the Cambodian forest. Orphaned at a young age, she was taken in by a man whom she called grandfather (a term of respect for the elderly, not her actual grandfather) and who promised to help her find her family. Instead she was forced to be his indentured servant until he sold her to a brothel at the age of 14 in order to pay off his debts.
After a few years working in the brothel, forced to have sex with multiple men a day and beaten and tortured when she would not, she was forced to marry a man who was a part of the Khmer Rouge. After a short time, she left him and went back into prostitution. As she struggled to find a way out, she met a man who worked on foreign aid projects. Though their relationship initially had to do with her prostitution, he was able to lead her out of the trade. She later met a Frenchman she would marry and move to France with.
Life in France was difficult for Somaly and they soon moved back to Cambodia where her husbands aid projects gave her the opportunity to begin helping women who were in the same situation she had been in. She began by distributing condoms and soap, then helped them get medical attention, and moved on to rescuing and removing women from brothels. In 2007 she created the Somaly Mam Foundation which is dedicated to fighting sexual slavery and human trafficking around the world.
The Road of Lost Innocence is Somaly's story. I know it seems as though I've shared most of it in the paragraphs above, but that is only a small introduction to the extraordinary life she has lived. Many women who have shared her story are not able to tell it today and Somaly Mam has given her entire life to making sure this changes.
This is a short book but a difficult one to read. Over the two day period I read it I was constantly bombarding my husband with statistics about sexual slavery. He'd see me put down my book and know that something was coming that would be difficult to hear.
It's very easy for those of us in North America to think of sexual slavery as an "over there" problem. But the trafficking of women comes on to our shores each and every day. Women are being moved around the world at every moment of the day for the purpose of sexual exploitation. And it's not just women, young girls are being bought and sold, their virginities getting a higher price. Just because we don't see it, doesn't mean it's not there. There are people around the world who are quietly fighting these injustices. Many women are scared or ashamed to speak up about what has happened to them but Somaly Mam is not one of them. This is one of the most important books you will read.