How can something so disturbing, so dark, look so ordinary to the untrained eye? They could be young girls hanging out on a warm evening anywhere. But they're not -- they are sex slaves in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. My guide knew this better than anyone. Until a few years ago, she was one of them.
Twelve years ago, Sina Vann was forced to have sex with 20 to 30 men a night. Tonight, Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher are presenting her with an award for her heroism in freeing others from sex slavery.
Incredibly, after escaping the hell of daily serial rape, Sina chose to go back and confront human traffickers like the one who enslaved her and fed his greed with her life. She told me, "If I didn't service customers I would be locked in the dungeon. They would tie my hands and tie my feet. And they would splash water over me, and they would shock me. When I was shocked, I felt like my spirit just left me."
Sina continues to go back to this underworld nearly every day, often risking her own life, to help women and girls out of sex slavery and into lives of self-sufficiency and purpose.
Sina was showing me around the brothels as we shot her story. The footage will be seen for the first time tonight at the 2009 Freedom Awards where Free the Slaves honors the Harriet Tubmans and Frederick Douglasses of today.
She is joined by Veero from Pakistan, who escaped slavery and went on to help bring 700 more slaves to freedom.
We're also honoring two young people through the Anne Templeton Zimmerman Fellowship, Alexis Weiss and Betsy Bramon, who are promising new leaders in the anti-slavery movement.
The awards honor freedom, not slavery, and we're ready to celebrate. Jason Mraz, Camilla Belle, Emmitt Smith, Isabel Allende, Ambassador Lou C. deBaca, Pam Omidyar and Maurice Greene will be there. You're invited. Watch it streaming live here at 7 p.m. PST.
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I dreamed up the Freedom Awards because in Free the Slaves we insist that the people who are closest to slavery should be the leaders and spokesmen and women of the anti-slavery movement. Who better to tell the world that this is real slavery? Who better to explain how people are held against their will, forced to work under threat of violence, and can't walk away? They know in their hearts that the end of slavery is possible for the 27 million people in bondage today. They know it is possible because they have lived liberation.
In our work in many countries we've watched as slaves band together and demand their rights. The slaveholder's thugs may beat them, but they stick it out until they get their freedom, especially when they know that people around the world care and are rooting for them.
But how can we help slavery survivors speak out? I hit the road as a film producer. I've been honored and humbled documenting the stories of slaves and former slaves in seven countries. Most jumped at the chance to talk, and we now have the largest modern slavery film library in the world that we make freely available to journalists wanting to tell the story.
What drives me is the firm belief, the deep knowing, that others should have the chance to witness these souls emerging into freedom, to watch their hearts and lives unfold and bloom. These slaves and former slaves have asked me to share, so share I will. It has become my life's work.
Every time a slave or survivor shares their story with me, they relive great pain. They insist on doing it anyway because they trust that we'll help tell their stories truthfully and without sensation. Somehow they have faith in the people they have never met, but who will hear their story. They pray that once they know, their listeners will act to keep others from slavery.
And now you know. What are you going to do?
Here's a place to start:
- Forward this blog to your friends and family. Watch the show. Tonight is your chance to educate others about slavery, while also partying with some of the most interesting people on the planet. Don't forget your dancing shoes.
- Learn the warning signs of slavery and human trafficking. Slavery happens right here in the US too. Know what to do if you suspect a case.
- Tell your elected officials that ending slavery is a priority for you. Ask them to join the Human Trafficking Caucus. Stay tuned at http://www.theactiongroup.org/ for the latest ways for you to demand that the US government combat slavery.
- Sign up to receive updates about the progress of the Freedom Awards winners and other work that is bringing people to freedom every day: www.freetheslaves.net.
- Learn more and spread the word. Our web site has free, downloadable materials to share information with your school, faith community and community group. You can buy Free the Slaves' books at our online store. Also check out Siddharth Kara's Sex Trafficking and Ben Skinner's A Crime So Monstrous.
- Donate $5 to Free The Slaves by texting "FREEDOM" to 85944. Don't forget to confirm your donation by replying "YES."
- The Twitter community can show their support by using the #freetheslaves hashtag, and sending out the following tweet: "There are 27m slaves around the world today. Learn about Free The Slaves & what u can do 2 help #freetheslaves."
In the 1800's, some extremely fortunate people had the opportunity to work day to day with Sojourner Truth and William Lloyd Garrison, towards a change that would reverberate throughout all humanity. I get to work every day with people like Sina and Veero. Join me. It's a wild ride.