In what is a very personal fight, the Somaly Mam Foundation is slowly stamping out Southeast Asia's billion-dollar human trafficking industry. Claire Chaffey reports
In times of economic difficulty, there is one industry which does not waver: human trafficking. An industry which relies on the sale of human commodities into servitude - often sexual - does not seem to suffer at the hands of a flailing global economy.
Human trafficking is a thriving business, generating more than $US9.5 billion ($10.9 billion) every year.
While official figures vary, the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime conservatively estimates that there are at least 2.5 million victims of trafficking around the world at any given time.
Fighting the personal fight
Someone who knows all too well the true nature of human trafficking is the founder and namesake of the Somaly Mam Foundation (SMF). When she speaks - as she did at numerous forums in Australia last week - it is impossible not to be deeply affected.
Mam, along with SMF Executive Director Bill Livermore, was in Australia to raise awareness about human trafficking and kick-off the annual Project Futures (an affiliated NGO) charity bike ride through Cambodia.
And to those fortunate enough to listen, Mam told her story.
When she was 12 years old, Cambodian-born Mam was sold into sexual slavery by her grandfather.
For 10 years she was trapped inside Cambodia's brothels: nameless and completely powerless to rectify her situation.
When Mam was in her 20s - she does not know her exact age - she escaped, beginning a new life in France with the assistance of a French aid worker.
The brutality she endured still gives her nightmares and talking about her past is evidently painful.
But she does talk about it, because she wants to effect change.
Similarly, Mam could have remained in France, free from her past and far from those who caused her so much harm.
Instead, she chose to return to Cambodia to liberate girls sold into sexual slavery - some as young as five years old - and, through SMF and its shelters, offer them love, support, rehabilitation and most importantly, she says, hope. SMF is also, through promoting the rule of law, taking steps to stamp out the practice altogether.
Empowerment, partnerships and the rule of law
According to Livermore, there are three critical elements required to eradicate human trafficking.
The first, he says, is to empower women.
"We need to give women equal opportunity to participate in the economy and, more importantly, equal opportunity in the eyes of the law," he says.
"When women are able to go to a court of law and be seen as an equal ... we see an incredible decrease in the driving forces behind human trafficking. Whenever you have a second class citizen in society, you have a vulnerability [which can] be exploited."
The second, says Livermore, is the development of Public Private Partnerships (PPPs).
"When you bring corporations, governments and NGOs to the table, working together, you see dramatic shifts in human rights issues," he says.
"Governments bring diplomatic pressure, law enforcement and legislative abilities. Corporations bring financial resources, know-how, processes, infrastructure and technology. NGOs bring on-the-ground, real knowledge about the situation, [as well as] cultural knowledge."
The third step, says Livermore, is to establish a strong rule of law.
"In countries which have an independent judiciary, transparency of the law, where people know what their rights are and have equal access to the law ... human trafficking is pushed to the fringes," he says.
"It is so critical. If we can address these three strategies, we can topple human trafficking."
Global realities and the role of law
Livermore is confident developing nations are, for the first time, beginning to see trafficking as an issue for which they must take responsibility.
"We are seeing developing countries begin to address this issue in a meaningful way," he says.
"Cambodia, for example, in 2008 passed the first anti-trafficking legislation in its history. It was a monumental step forward."
But Livermore points out that passing legislation does not necessarily provide an instant solution.
"A law can be passed in Phnom Penh, but it may never be applied in ... the rural provinces because there is no methodology for sharing the knowledge," he says.
"Judges don't know how to adjudicate it and the prosecutor doesn't know how to prosecute it, so they prosecute and adjudicate based on cultural norms and history."
Livermore says developed nations also need to do more to address the problem, and cites extra-territorial prosecution (where citizens can be charged domestically for crimes committed abroad) as playing a significant role.
"Australia, the US and Canada have extra-territorial prosecutions, but a lot of countries don't. That means their citizens can commit crimes against children on foreign soil and return home unpunished," he says.
"We have a responsibility for the way our citizens behave in other countries. We can't allow them to commit crimes somewhere else simply because the legal system is corrupt in that country. We, as leaders, need to pressure other world leaders to have those same laws in place."
Towards a better future
Livermore and Mam both acknowledge that the task of eradicating human trafficking is huge.
But they are also adamant that real change is afoot and both are certain eradication is possible.
Countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, says Livermore, are starting to engage in meaningful dialogue; developed countries are successfully prosecuting - albeit sluggishly - their citizens under extra-territorial legislation and increasingly powerful NGOs, such as SMF, are wielding increasing influence.
But like many issues involving grave violations of human rights, Livermore says, there is still much to be done.
Mam reminds us that time is of the essence: the longer we hesitate, the more children will become slaves.
"You have a saying that life is short," she says.
"For us, life can be very long."