As I said to girls in Assembly last week, even when we are very busy, we must find time to read. Reading stretches the mind and fills the soul, and we are not complete human beings without it.
This is true of books even when – perhaps especially when – they deal with subjects that we find painful to contemplate. I have just finished reading a book about Cambodia – “The Road of Lost Innocence”, by Somaly Mam – and it was a very, very painful book to read. Originally published in 2005 in France (and translated into English for publication in 2009), it is the autobiography of a Cambodian woman who was sold into sexual slavery by her grandfather when she was twelve. The brutality that she faced in the brothels where she was housed is almost beyond imagination; her tale is dreadfully disturbing, and I would hesitate to recommend this book to young people (certainly without their parents having read it first), even though they need, at some point in their lives, sooner rather than later, to understand that such terrible violence against girls and young women takes place.
This book was recommended to me by a former teacher at school who remains so passionate about Ascham’s involvement in Cambodia – building and supporting two schools in the remote province of Mondulkiri – that she continues to visit and fundraise. Each year, a group of girls go out to visit these schools, bringing supplies, and undertaking some teaching, and as each year passes, the relationship between Ascham and the Ascham Cambodian schools grows stronger. As I read ‘The Road of Lost Innocence’, and as I understood more of the terrible history of Cambodia, I was grateful for this relationship. I was reminded incredibly powerfully of why it is so important that we do not restrict our thoughts and our aspirations to the (largely comfortable) day-to-day activities we experience. It is our duty and responsibility as human beings to reach out beyond our everyday life towards the needs and requirements of fellow human beings who are less equipped or able than us to manage their own needs.
And I was reminded too that out of adversity can come great strength. Somaly Mam’s story began in poverty and horror, but after she escaped her incarceration in her early twenties, and rebuilt her life, she became an internationally recognised fighter against the sex trade in Cambodia, helping and rescuing girls as young as five or six. She has made a phenomenal difference in her life since.
International Women’s Day is not far off now; as we approach it, we should offer our applause and praise for all women who survive against the odds, and then seek to make a positive impact on the world. We salute you.