What Somaly Mam experienced before her teenage years would cripple even the toughest spirits, which makes the path she has chosen much more improbable and inspiring. As a renowned leader in the battle against the $12 billion per year human sex trafficking industry, Somaly embodies both the horror of this silent epidemic and the triumph victims and activists hope to realize in the future. Raised in a country where women are statistics in the losing battle against sexual slavery, Cambodian-born Somaly has arisen as an invigorating force.
Born into destitution in the Mondulkiri province of Cambodia during the 1970s, Somaly struggled with the rest of her country under the merciless reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. She never knew her parents, they disappeared early in her life perhaps due to political strife, and her grandmother also abandoned her. Her first memories include working as a servant for numerous families. At the age of twelve, she was sold into prostitution by a man posing as her grandfather.
"I was dead. I had no affection for anyone," states Somaly as she describes the decade of rape, abuse and torture she endured in a Phnom Penh brothel. Victims of sexual bondage can be as young as five-years-old, sold by strangers or even family members for as little as $150. Terrorized to the point of numbness, captives eventually accept their plight in order to survive. Traffickers and pimps often keep prostitutes in cages, only allowing them freedom when customers arrive. In this business, degradation is key to submission, and there is no limit to the amount of force used to break these girls. Once broken, sex workers may see an average of fifteen clients a night for mere pennies for each act.
Somaly's turning point came in the wake of tragedy when she watched a close friend brutally murdered by a pimp. Looking her in the eye as she died, Somaly understood the desperate conditions and vowed not only to escape but to return and save others. With the help of a French aid worker, Somaly fled Cambodia in 1993.
Three years after her liberation, Somaly created the nonprofit organization Acting for Women in Distressing Situations (or AFESIP, French acronym) that collaborates with local law enforcement to raid brothels and extract victims from hostile environments. Somaly utilizes a holistic approach to rehabilitate girls by providing emotional support and professional training to ensure successful reintegration into society. Lauded for her progress in the anti-trafficking struggle, Somaly launched The Somaly Mam Foundation in 2007 to create a funding source that supports other anti-trafficking groups.
But success has been bittersweet. Having saved nearly 6,000 girls, Somaly constantly faces death threats from traffickers and corrupt government officials. In 2006, brothel owners sought retaliation when they kidnapped and raped her then 14-year-old daughter. Despite these dangers, Somaly perseveres. "I have a lot of people trying to destroy me everywhere. They are trying, trying, but I just want to say to them, no way."
Image courtesy of Sydney.concreteplayground.com.au