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July 21, 2011

Diary of an Escaped Sex Slave

She was forced to have sex with hundreds of men before she turned 10. After such a brutal past, what does her future hold? In a Marie Claire exclusive, Sreypov Chan tells her phenomenal life story.

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Sreypov Chan outside the infamous White Building, a local den of prostitution in Phnom Penh.

Photo Credit: Jesse Pesta

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Sreypov Chan, a young Cambodian woman with a feisty laugh and a love of Kelly Clarkson songs, has a recurring dream: She's being chased by gangsters. They catch her and throw her into a filthy, cockroach-infested room. She knows what will happen next: She will be tortured—whipped with metal cables, locked in a cage, shocked with a loose electrical wire—and then gang raped.

Sreypov has lived this dream.

When she was 7 years old—an age when most girls are going to slumber parties—she was sold to a brothel in Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital city, to work as a sex slave. The woman who made the sale: her mother.

For years, pimps forced Sreypov to have sex with as many as 20 men a day. If she didn't meet her quota, or if she tried to run away, she was punished in unthinkable ways—burned with a hot poker, covered with biting insects. And worse. "I wanted to die," she says.

Sreypov is among the lucky ones. At age 10, she managed to break free of the brothels and start a new life. Today, she's ready to tell her story, talking openly about her enslavement and escape, and about coming to terms with her dark past.

As shocking as Sreypov's tale is, she's not alone. More than 12 million people are now victims of forced prostitution and labor across the world. The buying and selling of humans is a $32 billion global business, according to the U.S. State Department's 2009 Trafficking in Persons Report.

What kind of person sells her own daughter into slavery? In Cambodia, a deeply poor, corrupt nation still reeling from the bloody genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge regime in the '70s, it's someone especially desperate.

I first met Sreypov three years ago when she visited the U.S.—her first trip out of Cambodia. Seventeen years old at the time, she was so shy, she could barely look up at the people she met. "Sreypov can't believe how friendly people are to her here," one of her travel companions explained. "They look her in the eye."

A year later, I met Sreypov again. A smiling, chubby-cheeked 18-year-old, she greeted me with a giant hug and giggled out a "Hello, how are you?" in her freshly learned English. In her shiny pink raw-silk dress, she looked as if she'd discovered she had the right to exist. Still I wondered: Could she ever really get over her painful past? This year, I traveled to Cambodia to find out.

From the air, Cambodia looks like it's drowning in mud. It's monsoon season, and we swoop through coal-black clouds, then hit the runway in Phnom Penh with a jarring boom. On the ground, my taxi plows through flooded roads that are more like rivers, clogged with motorized rickshaws.

Down a narrow dirt lane in the middle of the city, up a winding flight of stairs, Sreypov, now a sparkly young woman of 20, sits in the room where she lives. The walls are mostly bare, except for a big green plastic clothes-hook in the shape of a smiling bug. A Tom and Jerry comforter tops her bed; there's a framed photo on her desk showing friends on a motorbike, including a girl missing an eye. I learn that a pimp gouged out the girl's eye with a piece of metal when she dared to ask for a rest from clients after an abortion.

Sreypov sits on her bed and begins her life story, with the help of a translator named Chanthan Roeurn. She says she remembers a happy childhood, with loving parents, five siblings, and a house in the rural district of Koh Thom, where her family owned a rice field. "You need to get an education," Sreypov recalls her father saying. She pictured herself going to school one day.

When she was 5, her father died. "After that, my mother changed," Sreypov says. "She was terribly unhappy; all the love drained out of our lives. We became very poor." The family eventually moved to a shack. When Sreypov was 7, her mother sold her, telling her she would be working as a housekeeper in another home. Sreypov felt it was her duty to obey. In Cambodia, Chanthan explains, "Daughters are like property: They are there to provide for the family."

Indeed, Sreypov did do a little housecleaning—for two days. On the second evening, her new employers drove her to another home, in Phnom Penh, where she ate dinner and went to bed. "When I woke up, I couldn't get out," she says. "I was locked in the room. I was crying, trying to open the door." Sreypov's demeanor visibly changes at the memory, her usually warm, animated face turning serious, then expressionless. It was her first night in a brothel.


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