I Am the Mother Too: Reflections on The Women Who Sold Their Daughters


A neighborhood in Cambodia is a global hotspot for the child sex trade. The people selling the children? Too often, their parents. CNN Freedom Project and Mira Sorvino, award-winning actress and human rights activist, investigate.
By Tim Hume, Lisa Cohen and Mira Sorvino
Photography by Jeremie Montessuis for CNN

Blog By Sue Wallingford

From all the stories that I have read about the trafficking industry and the selling of children for sex in Cambodia, I think this one by CNN, The Women Who Sold Their Daughters Into Sex Slavery struck me most.  Perhaps it’s because I’m a mother myself, so to even imagine the idea of selling my daughter to someone as a means toward their sexual gratification makes me ill.  But instead of turning away, I am transfixed.  There is so much I can’t imagine about this industry, as a human being, much less a mother.  And despite the horrific and unbelievable nature of this crime, the selling of sex is one of the fastest growing industries, both at home and abroad, even by mothers, causing me deep reflection about the moral fiber of humankind and my place in it.

It would be, and has been, easy for me to respond to such atrocities as a mother selling her own child to the sex trade with utter disbelief, disgust and epic amounts of judgment.  I would rather separate myself from “these people,” the pimps, the johns, the brothel owners, and these mothers, and claim myself as someone better than that.  But the truth is, I am as much a part of the problem as I am the solution.  My privilege alone affords me the opportunity to separate myself from “them,” because I have no idea what it is like to be “them.”  Oh so convenient.

One thing I have learned from the many visits to Cambodia that I have made, working with our partners, the study and research of the history and culture, and the many conversations I have had with the Cambodian people, is that the Cambodian people are complex.  Their history of trauma, that has become endemic to their culture, the corrupt political system that has for decades oppressed and victimized them, poor treatment from neighboring countries, a near absence of healthcare and education, and the extreme poverty that more that 90% of the population knows creates a system that breeds fear, mistrust, hatred, and the most primitive of survivor skills.  To just live from one day to the next without starving, having your home taken, or being physically harmed is the reality for far to many Cambodian people.  And yet, I would characterize the Cambodian people as some of the dearest and kindest peoples I have ever encountered.  They are a paradox to me for sure. It is hard for me to understand because unlike them, I am well above Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  I have never wanted or needed like my South-Asian friends.

But this story made it different for me. When I gaze upon the faces of the mothers in this story my heart breaks, and I don’t feel so removed or so separate, because I don’t see monsters. I see fellow women, mothers, their faces etched with deep fear, unbearable shame and despair, having bared years and generations of inexplicable trauma. I can’t avoid the pain because I know they are victims too.  And there is something in their faces, despite our apparent differences that is familiar.

As stated before the Cambodian people are complex, made from their long-standing history of trauma and we can see it being played out in this story by CNN.  The parents today, the mothers and fathers, were the children of the Khmer Rouge, who watched their families being brutally murdered, along with the monks, teachers, healers and artists, before they were forced to fight for the cause.  The parents they had are gone, the grandparents aunts and uncles who are supposed to guide them are all dead. The political system today, the children too, instead of coming to the aid of the people, continues to violate and oppress, forcing families in deep debt, taking homes and demanding people work for $2 a day in a garment factory that clothes me and you.  There is little direction coming from the elder population about the way to live in peace in harmony, or what is right and good in bringing up children.

So why not prostitute your child when it could feed your whole family?  Which is worse, a whole family starving or a whole family surviving at the sacrifice of one?   And a body is not expendable and can be used over and over again, yielding a lot of money.  So why work in garment factory for 2$ a day when you can make $50 a day or more servicing men, especially if you can save your whole family.  Why not?  What is the moral obligation?  What would you do if you had been brought up in the same situation?

There is a poem by Thich Nhat Hanh about a young girl, a pirate and himself.  The poem came to him after a meditation about the problem of piracy off the coast of Siam, where many boat people, women and children were being raped and killed while seeking refuge in camps along the Southeast Asia border.  I think it relevant for this story.

Call Me by My True Names

Do not say that I’ll depart tomorrow

because even today I still arrive.

Look deeply: I arrive in every second
to be a bud on a spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
in order to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and
death of all that are alive.

I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river,
and I am the bird which, when spring comes, arrives in time
to eat the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond,
and I am also the grass-snake who, approaching in silence,
feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate,
and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hands,
and I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood” to, my people,
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.

My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all walks of life.
My pain if like a river of tears, so full it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.

We are inter-connected, I believe this is true.  I am both the victim and the perpetrator and in this story – I am the child being raped, the pimp who abuses and holds the child hostage, the John who rapes the child and the mother who sells the child.  I am responsible, I have to see the truth, and I have to do something about it to make things better.  You?