by REBECCA BODMAN
Somaly Mam was sold into sexual slavery in Cambodia at 12 years old. She escaped her captors and is now fighting for all those left behind, bravely helping the women and children she rescues on their journey to recovery and freedom. This is Somaly’s story:
We were all once 12 years old.
Imagine being torn away from your family and being sold into sexual slavery. That was Somaly Mam’s reality. Somaly’s dream now is that her reality does not become that for any other little girl. “It is impossible to change the whole world, but I can start with the world around me. I can start by helping the girls in Cambodia, empowering them and sending them to school. One by one, like a drop of water I can help. Reality, passion and love can change the world,” she says.
Born into a tribal minority in the Mondulkiri province of Cambodia, Somaly began life at the bottom. As a severely marginalised ethnic group living in extreme poverty, Somaly’s family often resorted to desperate means to stay alive. These dismal circumstances led to the unspeakable horrors that would mark Somaly’s early years. Somaly was sold into sexual slavery by a man who posed as her grandfather. To this day Somaly does not know who this man was, only that his actions changed the course of her life.
A horrific childhood
Somaly endured horrors most cannot begin to imagine. Forced to work in a brothel with other children, Somaly was raped and tortured on a daily basis. One night, Somaly was made to watch as her best friend was savagely murdered. On another occasion she was punished by being locked in a cellar with snakes and scorpions. Despite the life to which Somaly was subjected, she never gave in and, incredibly, escaped with the help of a French aid worker in 1993.
Like a modern day fairytale, Pierre – the aid worker – became Somaly’s husband and together they fled to Paris. While in Paris, Somaly lived with her husband and mother-in-law, trying to re-build her life. But while Somaly was physically in Paris, her mind was elsewhere. Somaly couldn’t forget about the girls she’d left behind. She felt helpless in Paris and that she needed to do something to help the others not lucky enough to escape.
In 1994, Somaly returned to Cambodia where Pierre was posted to a new job. Somaly volunteered to help out at the clinic where Pierre worked, assisting the team that treated sexually transmitted diseases. After a while, Somaly became known to the local prostitutes, who would come to her to be treated for injuries they suffered when raped and beaten each night.
Somaly understood these girls; they were just like her and she had to help. Posing as a nurse from the aid organisation, Somaly began to visit the brothels to hand out condoms. Slowly Somaly became more active in trying to help these girls; she convinced brothel owners to let her treat the very sick girls and even rallied with local police to raid brothels where drugs and child prostitutes were rife.
In 1996 Somaly founded AFESIP – Acting for Women in Distressing Situations – a charity to fund a proper centre to help prostitutes in Cambodia. AFESIP is now an organisation that ensures victims not only escape their slavery, but have the emotional and economic strength to face the future with hope. AFESIP has now changed the lives of thousands of women and girls. Somaly’s work with the charity gained her international recognition resulting in the spotlight on her and her work.
In 2007, the US-based Somaly Mam Foundation was born, founded by Somaly and two American friends, Jared Greenberg and Nicholas Lumpp. Jared and Nicholas were US Air Force Academy graduates who had became aware of Somaly’s work and travelled to Cambodia to visit AFESIP’s centres. The foundation is a funding vehicle to support anti-trafficking organisations and to provide victims and survivors with a platform from which their voices can be heard around the world.
Somaly hopes that one day both the Somaly Mam Foundation and AFESIP will be fully staffed by survivors. “My strategy is to empower victims to be survivors and empower survivors to become part of the solution. For 17 years I’ve been helping the girls, giving them skills and sending them to school. One of the girls I rescued, Sina Vann, was trafficked from Vietnam to Cambodia at 13 years old. She has been with us for 10 years and now she is a co-director of the Voices for Change program of the Somaly Mam Foundation. She is now working to help others, so to me, if we save one girl … it is saving many.”
Somaly is tackling a big issue and with that comes the big obstacles she must overcome to realise her dream. “HIV and AIDS is a big issue for us, we spend many years rescuing and helping survivors recover and some die of AIDS; it’s so sad. We work in partnership with large NGOs who are working with HIV to try and overcome this. “Some of the girls reintegrate back into society and move back with their family.
Once back in their family environment, they become overwhelmed that they can’t help their whole family and end up going back to a brothel; it takes us back to square one. We teach them skills to start a sustainable business. Our aim is to make them not dependent on the girls, so the survivors can reintegrate and begin their new life without any pressure,” she says.
The issues Somaly deals with on a daily basis are heavy. Each time she enters a brothel or listens to the stories of the girls she saves, horrifying wounds of her own time as a captive are re-opened. Her nightmares return each time she’s asked to recount her experiences, which is often as it’s what evokes an emotional response from people and, in turn, gets dollars through the door.
It seems that for Somaly to continue to help the girls she rescues, her own issues can never be laid to rest. Somaly says being with the survivors gets her through the difficult times. There are happy moments too. “Last year, I took one of my girls to her first day of university. She had been with us for 10 years and she is our first survivor to attend university,” Somaly says.
Her tireless work has justifiably garnered worldwide respect. She is now a frontrunner for the anti-trafficking struggle. Somaly was honoured as one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2009 and was featured as a CNN Hero.
She is also the recipient of the Prince of Asturias Award for International Cooperation, the World’s Children’s Prize for the Rights of the Child, Glamour Magazine’s 2006 Woman of the Year Award, and has won accolades from the US Department of Homeland Security. Despite the awards, Somaly continues live in Phnom Penh and work in the recovery centres, feeling much more comfortable amongst her fellow survivors than on the world stage.
Somaly has now helped more than 6000 girls in Cambodia and South-East Asia. The girls Somaly rescues vary in age with the youngest girl they’ve rescued being the unimaginable age of five. The centres are largely funded by The Somaly Mam Foundation and an Australian not–for-profit, Project Futures.
In 10 years time Somaly hopes all victims of sexual slavery realise they can turn their experience around. “I would like all the victims around the world to become survivors, to know that anything can happen. I would like all people to understand that a bad experience is not a bad thing if you can turn it around the right way.”
You can find out more about the Somaly Man Foundation and make a donation if you wish, here.
Rebecca Bodman is the Marketing and Content Coordinator at Business Chicks. Follow her on Twitter @becbodman