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.