She remembers a home that looked fancy on the outside but ominous on the inside, a dark maze of bare chambers. She remembers the parade of men, one after the other, day by day, forcing her to have sex. She remembers contemplating death. She wasn’t yet 10 years old.
Her name is Sreypich Loch, and she was a slave in a Cambodian brothel. If she refused sex, she says, she would be beaten, shocked with an electric cord, denied food and water. “What else could I do?” she asks.
Loch, now around 20 years old, managed to escape that world and works today to rescue other girls. She helps grab them out of brothels, and she hosts a radio show in Phnom Penh, giving the girls a forum for their stories. It’s a groundbreaking effort for a young woman and former sex slave in this male-dominated society.
She hopes that by talking about her past, she will help people understand that slavery is alive and well. When people “hear the voice of the survivor,” she says on a recent visit to New York City, “we can help others.” She traveled to the U.S. with the group that helped save her, the Somaly Mam Foundation, named for another survivor of the sex trade in Cambodia.
Loch’s story may sound extreme, but it is not some isolated incident. An estimated 27 million people are victims of slavery around the world, according to the U.S. State Department. The buying and selling of humans is a multibillion-dollar global business, ensnaring vulnerable people who are often kidnapped or tricked into the trade.
Loch’s nightmare began when she was a child in Phnom Penh. Her stepfather raped her, she says, when she was just a girl; she thinks she was around 7 years old. He threatened to kill her if she told anyone. She would be raped again that year, by a stranger who snatched her from the street. He made the same threat, she says: tell anyone and die.
She stayed silent. “I was young. I was scared,” she says, speaking softly. “In Cambodia, many fathers rape their daughters; brothers rape their sisters.” Consistently ranked as one of the poorest and most corrupt nations in the world, Cambodia is still reeling from the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, which massacred as many as 2 million people in the 1970s. Intellectuals and city dwellers were targeted and tortured in an attempt to create a completely agrarian society. Families were ripped apart.
One day Loch worked up the nerve to tell her mother about the rapes. She’s not sure how much time had passed since the assaults, she says, as she was just a child and memories fade. But she has a vivid memory of her mother’s response. “She hit me,” Loch says. “She didn’t believe me. I think: she does not love me.”
Loch ran away from home, having lost faith in her family, she says. She remembers a heavy rainfall and the feeling of not knowing where to go. She hadn’t thought that far ahead. “I cried and cried,” she says. And then she was found by a gang of men. “Five men raped me on the street,” she says. “I wanted to die.”
That might have indeed been her fate if a woman hadn’t come along, offering to help. The woman took Loch to her home—or so Loch thought. The house turned out to be a brothel. She was locked in a basement room and forced to “sleep with many, many men every day,” she says. “I couldn’t see light, just dark.”
Her eyes fill with water at the thought of it. Then she pauses, closes her eyes for a moment, and continues. “If I said no, pimp hit me,” she says. “I tell pimp, please kill me.” Then she adds, “I am people. I am not an animal. How could they do me that way?”
Loch’s story mirrors that of many rescued Cambodian girls, who report being drugged, locked in coffins, whipped, even covered with biting insects in order to make them submit to sex. While their stories can be difficult to verify independently, the U.S. State Department confirms that the enslavement of girls in Cambodia is pervasive. “The sale of virgin girls continues to be a serious problem in Cambodia,” the State Department said in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report released this summer. “Cambodian men form the largest source of demand for child prostitution, though a significant number of men from the United States and Europe, as well as other Asian countries, travel to Cambodia to engage in child sex tourism.” Among local men, demand is often fueled by myths that sex with a virgin brings luck or good health.
Cambodia “does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking,” the State Department report says, but is making “significant efforts to do so.” Officials reportedly convicted 62 trafficking offenders this past year, an increase from 20 offenders the prior year.
Years had gone by, Loch says, when a client took her out of the brothel to his own home. There, she found an open window and fled, she says, hiding in the shadows until a policeman found her. “My body was bad, smelled not good,” she recalls. When she told her story, the police connected her with anti-trafficking officials. They in turn referred her to a center run by former sex slave Somaly Mam, according to a spokeswoman for Mam’s foundation, a grassroots group with shelters across Cambodia. No police action was taken against Loch’s captors, the spokeswoman says. Loch, for her part, remembers seeing all the girls at the shelter and thinking she had been sold to another brothel.
That was around four years ago, when Loch was in her midteens. At the center, she learned to sew and began attending school. In 2010 she joined an offshoot of Mam’s foundation called Voices for Change, a group of young slavery survivors who rescue girls from brothels. The activists gain access to the brothels by bringing supplies such as soap and condoms. Once inside they tell the sex workers that they can escape, with the help of the foundation and the police. The victims often need convincing. Many have been enslaved in the sex trade for so long, they don’t know how to function in the outside world; they wonder how they would support themselves. The activists tell them they can learn a trade, such as sewing or hairdressing, at the shelters.
The year Loch joined the group of young activists, she received an invitation to tell her story on a commercial radio station in Phnom Penh. The show sparked a storm of interest, with listeners calling in, reporting suspicious situations and asking about sentencing for pimps and traffickers. Loch saw an opportunity to help the public understand the shadowy world of slavery. This year she launched her own show, which she now hosts five days a week, interviewing former sex slaves as well as lawyers and legislators. She believes it’s the personal narratives of the girls that make people stop and listen.
Loch says she is “so happy” about her job. At the same time, she says it’s difficult to be reminded every day of her life in captivity. She is also haunted by the absence of her mother in her life; she has not seen her since she left home as a child.
She draws strength, she says, from her fellow survivors. The bond between these women is clear. On her trip to New York with two other young survivors, Sina Vann and Sopheap Thy, she holds their hands and hugs them frequently as they attend events and tour the city. In jeans, sneakers, and T-shirts, their dark hair pulled back into ponytails, the young women are quick to laugh at themselves and at one another. Vann jokes that Loch has great strength because “she eats a lot.” Loch makes fun of Thy for taking photos of flowers instead of Manhattan skyscrapers.
They look for restaurants that serve familiar dishes—rice and fish—and they marvel at the enormous platters of food that arrive. They look forward to going home and sharing their stories with the rest of the rescued girls. They call each other “sister.”