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Tragedy of the sex trade in Asia

Late last year I visited a brothel a short drive from the centre of Phnom Penh.

I was in Cambodia thanks to Project Futures, an Australian non-profit organisation dedicated to fighting the global sex-trafficking trade. Our Outreach team included half a dozen staff from a support organisation established by Somaly Mam, a woman who was sold into slavery at the age of 12.

After enduring years of rape and torture in brothels, Somaly managed to escape and went to live in France. But she soon returned to Cambodia to establish AFESIP (a French acronym for ''Acting for women in distressing situations''). Her work, helping women one at a time by taking them into shelters she has established in Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Laos, has led the fight against sexual slavery and exploitation in south-east Asia.

More than 6000 women and children have been rescued by Somaly and her team, an achievement for which she has been honoured internationally, including being listed as one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in the world. The Somaly Mam Foundation was established in the US in 2007, committed to ending modern-day slavery around the world.

The Outreach team provides working prostitutes with education about STDs and with soap and condoms to limit the spread of diseases. Free testing and treatment is offered at the AFESIP medical clinic. Exit strategies are also offered to women seeking to leave the brothels behind, and the team members (some of whom are former child prostitutes) are also on alert for signs of child trafficking and other victimisation.

Many women are physically imprisoned in brothels, though many other prostitutes across south-east Asia, including the ones I saw, are enslaved by deprivation and lack of alternatives. The brothel I visited was an enclave of small and dirty tin shacks at the bottom of a muddy hill, a few hundred metres off a disused railroad track. Because sex workers are ostracised by the broader community, they are forced to eat, sleep and work in isolation in squalid ghettos. The roofs leak, there is no electricity or running water, and furniture is rudimentary.

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Word quickly spread that the Outreach team had arrived. One by one, 16 women filed in and sat on thin mats laid on the wooden floor, most with young children in their laps. Without any embarrassment, a 24-year-old woman told us through our translator that she sees two or three clients a day, who pay her three or four American dollars each. This is quite a sum in a country where the gross national income per capita is less than two dollars a day. She is paid this amount because she is young and pretty.

Younger women in Cambodia are regularly prostituted in karaoke bars, strip clubs or massage parlours. However, most of the women we are with are older and consequently relegated to touting for business on the street. At nightfall, they will cake on makeup and walk up the muddy hill to the road, where men will come and select them. The women will either take the man back to their tin shack, or he will pay for a hotel. When he is finished with her, she will return to the street, numerous times a night, seven nights a week. I see pain and misery etched on the faces of these women. There are fleeting smiles and the occasional laugh, but in a few short hours they will be back on the street. The women also say that pregnancy is inevitable, and that the boyfriends who pimp some of them out use condoms to protect themselves. However, condom use is optional for clients if the price is right and if there are no visible signs of disease.

Without an education these women have little prospect of finding other jobs. So Somaly Mam's shelter also provides opportunities to learn skills such as hairdressing and sewing, with day care provided for the children.

As I walked back up the hill I pondered what Somaly wrote in her autobiography: ''What you have learned from experience is worth much more than gold. If you have a house it may burn down. Any kind of possession can be lost, but your experience is yours forever. Keep it and find a way to use it.''

My experience has impressed on me that men need to be better. The distress in the sad eyes of the women made it plain that the flesh trade is not like any other commercial transaction. Especially when such a major power imbalance exists between men with means and women who are just trying to survive.

Joel Williams is a member of Project Futures, an Australian not-for-profit organisation which raises awareness and funding to combat sex trafficking globally. www.projectfutures.com