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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.

girls sitting on floor

Sreypov tells sex workers they can escape the trade.

Photo Credit: Jesse Pesta

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The road to Kampong Cham, a town about two hours outside Phnom Penh, is a bumpy one; punishing rains have left the dirt thoroughfare dented with colossal potholes. Sreypov, Chanthan, and I are on our way to a center for rescued sex slaves. Sreypov, who once stayed at the center herself, returns often to talk with the girls, all of whom are under age 18. Some are as young as 5.

As we bounce along, we pass oxcarts, open-air homes on stilts, bony goats, and naked kids playing close to the road. A puppy bounds out in front of our car; with no time to maneuver, we hit it with a thud, leaving it dead in the road.

At the center, called AFESIP (an acronym for its French name), several dozen girls are getting a lesson in hygiene from a nurse. When the class breaks up, the girls, dressed in their public-school uniforms—white cotton blouses, knee-length blue skirts—excitedly swarm around Sreypov, practically tackling her to the ground. The girls live at the center, which is run by a former victim of sex slavery named Somaly Mam, and attend a nearby school, as well as learn job skills like sewing and hairstyling.

Sitting on a metal swing with Chanthan on the grassy grounds of the center, Sreypov continues her tale. "At first, it was quiet," she says, recalling her initial days in the brothel. "Then one day, a man opened the door and said, 'Do you want a client?' I didn't know what he meant, but I knew it was bad. I said no. Then he brought me to a room for punishment." She pauses for a moment. "I had to drink the man's urine." The abuses escalated in the following days. She was tied up and covered with biting ants, whipped with an electric cable. Finally, she said yes.

Sreypov stares off into the distance, awaiting the next question. She is uneasy telling her story; it doesn't tumble forth freely, but rather comes in short, staccato, emotionless bursts. It's as if she becomes someone else to cope with recounting her own past.

When Sreypov saw her first client—"an Asian man with a cruel look in his eyes," she recalls—she changed her mind and said no again, and started to cry. Furious at her behavior, the pimp took his abuse to a new level, crushing up a handful of hot chili peppers with his foot and stuffing them in her vagina. Then he took a hot metal rod and jammed it inside her as well. "The pain was so terrible," she says. "I couldn't speak." Soon after, the client raped her.

Sreypov doesn't know if the client paid a high fee for her virginity; she never saw any money at the brothel. In general, sex with girls can cost as little as $5 (that's less than the $9 I paid to take a taxi from the airport to my hotel), but virgins usually command a far higher price. Clients can pay as much as $800 to $4000, according to the Trafficking in Persons Report. And virgins can fetch that price more than once, as the pimps often stitch up the girls (without an anesthetic) after the first time they have sex, so they'll scream in pain the next time, tricking clients.

After Sreypov's initiation into sex slavery, she spent the next few months imprisoned in her room, with a guard stationed at the door. If she didn't meet her quota of men for the day, she would be shocked with a loose wire from a socket in the wall. "On some days, I was so tired, I couldn't get out of bed. The men would just come to my bed, one after another, like a gang rape," she says. "I became numb. My life grew dark. I thought everything was finished for me."

Sreypov sits silently for a moment. Her eyes, distant a few moments earlier, now seem deeply sad. Chanthan looks over at me; then, as if to explain Sreypov's past, she sighs and says simply, "This is Cambodia." Chanthan, like many here, blames the country's problems on the Khmer Rouge, which tortured and executed as many as 2 million teachers, lawyers, doctors, and city dwellers—about a third of the population—during the '70s, in an attempt to turn the country into a purely agrarian society.

It's late afternoon, and we rejoin the girls in the center to say good-bye. They're entertaining themselves by doing a traditional Cambodian dance, with the older girls teaching the younger ones—among them, Sreypov's 8-year-old sister, Opekha. The girl is mentally disabled, but Sreypov was afraid her mother would try to sell Opekha anyway, so she brought her here. When we try to leave, the girls don't want to let us go. Even though they've just met me, they hug me, tightly. A pretty Vietnamese teenager whispers to me, "Promise you will never forget me."

That evening in the car, I sit in the backseat next to a tiny girl named Sreymach, who was sold as a sex slave a year ago, at age 5. She stares, wide-eyed, out the window as we hit the outskirts of Phnom Penh, its hotels and bars gleaming in the night. She is traveling to the city to visit a health clinic. She has HIV.

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