UNICEF estimates that more than 2 million women and children are sold into slavery every year.
Joel Rowe, a Jamestown native who graduated from Jamestown High School in 2005, made a decision to do what he could to help change this statistic. He participated in a seven-day, 310-mile cycling journey through Cambodia to raise money and experience first-hand the works of Somaly Mam.
Mam was born in the Mondulkiri province of Cambodia, and began life in severe poverty. She was sold into sexual slavery by a man posing as her grandfather, and forced to work in a brothel alongside other children. Mam was tortured, raped on a daily basis and was forced to witness the murder of her best friend. However, she was eventually able to escape from her captors.
Joel Rowe, right, participates in a seven-day, 310-mile cycling trip through Cambodia to bring awareness to human trafficking.
In 1996, Mam established a Cambodian non-governmental organization called Agir Pour les Femmes en Situation Precaire. Her foundation is recognized as a leader in the anti-trafficking struggle. AFESIP helps victims escape, and helps them with the emotional and economical strength to face their future with hope.
Rowe is currently living in Manhattan, and working for the Center for HIV Educational Studies and Training through the City University of New York as a research assistant. Rowe, who is no stranger to volunteer work, found out about the Cambodian cycling trip on short-notice.
"For me, it kind of happened last-minute. There was a cancellation in the group and they needed someone to fill in. I had a friend at the foundation, and she let me know about the trip. She asked if I wanted to go and, I said 'Yeah.' The trip was probably the most life-affirming experience I've had," Rowe said.
There are 20 spots available for the trip, and participants are asked to raise funds and provide their own airfare. The foundation's fundraising goal is $5,500 per person.
"Some people raised a little less than that, some people raised way, way, way more than that," Rowe said.
The trip began in Cambodia's capital of Phnom Penh, before the group traveled south to Sihanoukville. The group also traveled to Kampot, Kep Sur Mer, Rabbit Island, back to Phnom Penh and to Kampong Cham, Beng Melea, Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. The group stopped at shelters along the way.
"After Somaly Mam fled Cambodia, she went back and started some shelters for girls who she pulled out of brothels, she pulled from families where they had been raped, and she created these places for the survivors to go that were safe. They provide girls with food, shelter, clothing, education and some trade skills too, like weaving and hairdressing," Rowe said.
There is also an empowerment program, called Voices for Change, for girls that have been through the shelter program. The women in Voices for Change are advocates against sex-trafficking, and speak out with their experiences, Rowe said.
LARGER THAN LIFE LESSONS
While in Cambodia, Rowe said that he learned a lot.
"I learned about courage and bravery and what it looks like in the face of things that are way more terrible than anyone would care to imagine. There were girls who had missing eyes and had been beaten and raped literally thousands of times. The thing that made me happiest on the trip was seeing them do normal things and have fun," Rowe said.
Seeing the resilience that the girls possessed after the things that they had been through, Rowe said, was uplifting.
"I think a lot of people come into these things and are like, 'I'm going to help the world!' If you get lucky, you will help a few people. And, I don't even really like the word help. If you get lucky, you will get to know a few people, and you will get to do something for them, with them. That's the best-case scenario. And, if that happens once per trip you go on, you've done good," Rowe said.
The trip has also helped Rowe compare cultures, and see the things that people may take for granted, but he said that he is also able to see the similarities in human nature.
"Finding ways to connect with people who live in a place that is so different than me forces me to draw similarities that I think are down to brass tacks, this is what it means to be a person. These are emotions that we go through, these are experiences that we have," Rowe said. "When you distill it all down, it is those similarities that lead to understanding, that lead people away from things like violence and prejudice."
Despite a language barrier, the group was able to make connections with the girls that they met. Some spoke English, but the group also used translators.
"Language is one of those things, like, you need it, but you kind of figure it out using other means. That's kind of the fun of it," Rowe said.
FINDING A CAUSE
Rowe has also volunteered in New Orleans and in Ghana. He said that the best thing that people can do is to become involved in a cause.
"I would encourage other people to go on any trip like this. Start small, you don't have to bust out and go to Cambodia. Not everyone can do that and wants to do that, or should do that really. But, it actually starts really, really small. I didn't talk to anyone on this trip who wasn't also involved in community-level things where they live," Rowe said.
He encourages people to look past the intimidation of trying something new, and to get out into the community to do volunteer work.
"If you just take that step and try to engage and trust, people will accept you, because you are passionate. Community-level engagement, I think, is huge," Rowe said.