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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.
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. 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.
State Department's 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. Seventeen years old at the time, she was so shy, she could barely look up at the people she met.
A year later, I met Sreypov again. A smiling, chubby-cheeked year-old, she greeted me with a giant hug and giggled out a "Hello, how are you? 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?