She is a savior, and example to millions of other women facing similar circumstances. Ultimately, her life is one story of triumph and love in ending the human trafficking sex slave trade for most people in South East Asia and on a wider global scale.
Somaly Mam (not her birth name) was born in a tribal village of Cambodia, between 1970 and 1971. Her actual birthdate remains unknown because she was not registered at birth. Somaly doesn’t even know who her parents are.
Somaly and her parents lived in extreme poverty in the Mondulkiri Province at a time of Pol Pot’s & the Khmer Rouge's reign and the Cambodian War of Independence.
By the time Somaly was five, over one and a half million of her fellow countrymen and women had been tortured and killed during the time of Pol Pot’s genocidal regime. Somaly’s parents were one of those who perished. Social order quickly disintegrated throughout the country, leaving millions desperate for their own survival.
A Life Full of Torture Begins
Around this time, a stranger in Somaly’s village offered to help her find her father. The stranger said she could call him his grandfather. He adopted her and she became his slave. During this time in Cambodia’s history, social order was in such disarray that human sex trafficking of children quickly developed. Worse, families would often resort to selling their own children to brothels or money lenders for as little as ten dollars.
Somaly was subjected to torture, regular beatings, and was sexually molested by her “grandfather” until the age of 14. Then her grandfather, in need of some money, sold Somaly to a brothel, where she was forced to become a prostitute. Somaly was also forced into marrying a fighter of the Khmer Rouge regime and she would be regularly beaten and raped by him.
For the next decade, Somaly was gang–raped and tortured. She was taken to the streets and be forced to have sex with at least five or six clients every day. Somaly would often resist, however, this resistance elicited beatings and torture until she eventually lost any will to fight back.
On one occasion, Somaly tried to escape but she was unfortunately caught by the owner of the brothel. To punish her, they tied her to a bed and mercilessly caned her. The brothel owner also let a group of his friends take turns at gang–raping her in a room filled with snakes, scorpions, and open sewerage. At the end of the ordeal, the owner threw a bucket of maggots at her.
This worsened when Somaly wasn’t soliciting or prostituting herself. She would be locked up in a cage and be viciously beaten, tortured, given death threats and released to prostitute herself again on a daily basis. It was around the time when she was forced to watch her best friend viciously murdered at the brothel she was a sex slave in.
Meeting Pierre Legros
At the age of 20, Somaly’s services were hired by a humanitarian worker from Switzerland. She met this man at a hotel. It was the first time Somaly had witnessed a clean bathroom and bed sheets. Through this aid worker, she met other aid workers who saw her for who she was, not for what she was. One of these aid workers that wanted to help Somaly was Pierre Legros.
Pierre convinced Somaly to escape from the brothel she was enslaved in, convincing her that she should “no longer keep her silence.”
Severely traumatized yet strong and committed, Somaly’s escape from the brothel was already remarkable and heroic in itself; however, what makes Somaly so extraordinary is her humanitarian work that was to follow.
Somaly and Pierre then fled to France and married, eventually having three children. While in France, Somaly taught herself French—one of the six languages she now speaks—and worked in a restaurant. Feeling empowered and desiring to help other women like her escape from slavery, they returned to Cambodia in 1994 to assist the humanitarian organization, Doctors Without Borders. During this time, Somaly helped out as a volunteer translator for the doctors.
One day, a girl from a brothel came in to the Doctors without Borders Clinic in Kratie. Something ignited in Somaly, seeing this young girl. As a result, Somaly was soon visiting brothels herself and using her own money in purchasing and distributing condoms, soap, and disseminating information about AIDS prevention. She also helped in transporting sick girls from the brothels to the Doctors Without Borders Clinic. She would also help them escape the brothels to villages more than ten miles away, paying seamstresses to teach them other skills, thus breaking the vicious circle of prostitution in their lives.
In another occasion, Somaly taught one of the girls who visited the Doctors Without Borders Clinic how to protect herself from sexually transmitted diseases and extended this offer to the friends of this girl. News began to spread and soon, girls began to turn up at the Doctors Without Borders Clinic in groups. The experience weighed on Somaly’s heart and now when asked about it, Somaly said:
“I knew these girls: they were me. I thought every night about those girls leaving the hospital, sick, to go back to the places where that same evening they would be beaten and raped."
By 1996, Somaly, along with Pierre, co-founded their Agir Pour les Femmes en Situation Precaire, or Acting for Women in Distressing Situations (AFESIP), with the goal and intention to help children and women trapped in the sex trade in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam to not only escape from the brothels they were sex slaves in but also to educate them and provide them with emotional support and life skills to become independent and integrated back into society.
AFESIP has three main goals
1. First and foremost the protection of victims
2. Implementing a victim-centered approach via holistic care and, without discrimination, welcome any person who desires to leave sex slavery conditions to reside in one of the AFESIP residential centers. Ensures the women they assist not only escape for good, but have both strong emotional and economic strength to face their new life with hope and optimism.
3. To attain the long-term goal of helping these victims of sex slavery and trafficking to reintegrate back into society without discrimination.
Somaly and Pierre’s AFESIP Foundation, through Pierre’s connections to several non-government social action organizations, was able to secure some small initial funding. Somaly would be at the coal face on the humanitarian side of their foundation, Pierre was instrumental in fundraising, managing, and developing their organization.
The social action of their foundation also engaged workers in investigating and uncovering any evidence of sex slavery and trafficking in the brothels. Once enough evidence had been gathered, the AFESIP would then notify police of them and a police raid would be carried out (sometimes) and girls and women at the brothels would be encouraged to seek shelter at one of AFESIP resident care centers, where they would receive medical attention, food, new clothes, counseling, education and accommodation. In addition, they are introduced to other vocational training to assist them in becoming financially independent and not faced with the dire circumstance of being forced back into sex trafficking again.
Unfortunately, these raids were difficult and dangerous. Not only when enough evidence had been provided to the police were they carried out. Due to corruption, many police officers did not want to support Somaly and Pierre’s crusade. In addition to this, many of the police were also actively involved in the trade of sex slavery themselves.
Somaly’s Daughter Kidnapped
When raiding brothels, not only has Somaly received constant death threats by the mafia brothel owners, she also had guns aimed at her face. In 2006, the brothel owners brazenly kidnapped and raped Somaly’s 14–year–old daughter in an effort to drive fear and stop Somaly in her crusade.
When asked how she was able to continue what she does, she said:
“People ask me how I can bear to keep doing what I do. I'll tell you. The evil that's been done to me is what propels me on. Is there any other way to exorcise it?”
The other approach the AFESIP Foundation took was to talk to brothel owners directly and to try to persuade them that it was not only in the best interest of the girls, but good business for them to have their working girls treated at the Doctors Without Borders Clinic and be educated about AIDS, personal hygiene, and how to avoid sexually transmitted diseases.
In positioning these messages in the way that could be of benefit to the brothel owners, Somaly was successful in holding a symbiotic relationship that assisted the girls without retribution from the brothel owners.
In 1998, Somaly was honored with the Prince of Asturias Award in Spain by the foundations International Cooperation assistance and humanistic values that form part of mankind's universal heritage.
Over time, with growing popularity of her crusade, more support was given her foundation, leading Somaly to say:
“Although many Cambodian officials are shockingly corrupt, and some of them are simply evil, I have also at times received support for my work from certain people in the Cambodian government. Without them none of what we do would be possible.”
Over the following decade, the AFESIP continued to fight and struggle in its crusade with little financial support and government assistance until 2007 when it gained broader global interest and support from the media. One of the first was a French media company biography, exposing the sex trafficking industry in South East Asia in 2007.
Founding the Somaly Mam Foundation
During that same year, two American entrepreneurs, Jared Greenberg and Nicholas Lumpp both graduates of the US Air Force, learnt of the growing sex slave trade after seeing an online video of Anderson Cooper 360, interviewing a woman by the name of Somaly Mam. Inspired by this woman being interviewed, they decided to become active participants in helping the fight against sex slavery and decided to personally visit Somaly and her foundation in Cambodia.
While there, they visited shelters and met some of the women who had been helped to escape the sex trade. The experience changed their life and during a car ride between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, Somaly explained her vision of a US–based organization that would give greater exposure and help her crusade. They decided to form the Somaly Mam Foundation on the 19th of September 2007 to combat sex slavery.
In 2007, Somaly received an honorary doctorate degree from Regis University in Colorado USA for her efforts to combat the sex slave trade.
In 2008, Somaly was interviewed on the Tyra Banks Show where she discussed her crusade, while Jared Greenberg and Nicholas Lumpp were interviewed by Fox Sports on a segment entitled “AFA Grads Battle Sex Slavery.” A documentary film in Denver was also promoted called “Holly.”
The foundation also held a fundraising benefit in New York and gained wider attention. Later in 2008, Somaly won the World’s Children Award for her battle against sex slavery and the US Government released a report about Trafficking of Persons. The United Nations then held a debate about human trafficking and sex abuse by aid workers being widespread. Somaly was interviewed by MSNBC and Jared and Nicholas were interviewed by Marie Claire Magazine.
Most Influential Woman in the World
Washington Post, New York Times, Reuters all did interviews and wrote articles about the Somaly Mam Foundation and Somaly. Somaly was awarded the Roland Berger Human Dignity Award in 2008 and was honored by TIME magazine as one of the most influential women of 2009. Later in 2009, the Malaysian Prime Minister gave his support and announced to act against human trafficking. UNICEF held a premier of the Stairway Foundation on child sex trafficking and the US Ambassador to Cambodia visited the Somaly Mam Foundation shelters.
Later on, the mega franchise the Body Shop showed its support for the Somaly Mam Foundation and ran an awareness campaign in their shops, which received over a million signatures. Actress Susan Sarandon was also awarded the first Somaly Mam Foundation Award for her immeasurable contribution to the foundation and its crusade.
Also in 2009, the Somaly Mam Foundation established its Scholarship Trust Fund which was to provide schooling funding for women that had escaped the sex slave trade. The 24th of November was announced in Cambodia as the Anti-Trafficking Day and in December of 2009, Somaly Mam was interviewed by Oprah.
In 2010, Somaly was invited to lead the Daily Beast Women’s World Conference in Search for Solutions and Lauren Bush launched a line of beauty products, called survivor–made beauty products and had its proceeds donated to the Somaly Mam Foundation. The foundation also became the beneficiary of the Michael Angelo’s “The Lipstick Portraits.” Later in 2010, Somaly was interviewed by Stephanie Lorenzo, Fox and Friends, Milk, and holds another successful benefit with the help of Susan Sarandon in New York as well as in California called “Spread Your Wings.”
One of the 100 Most Inspiring People
In 2011, Somaly Mam was awarded by the Women Deliver as one of the 100 most Inspiring People Award. She spoke alongside the Dalai Lama at the Newark Peace Education Summit along with receiving a mention in a speech by Hillary Clinton.
In 2011, the Body Shop delivered a signed petition to the United Nations, calling on an end to child sex slavery and end sex trafficking with over seven million signatures. Somaly Mam also received the Mony Saraphorn Medal in Cambodia Kingdom from the country’s king.
In 2012, the Posco TK Park Foundation awarded Somaly Mam the medal for social service. She was awarded the CARES Award at the Nomura Asia Equity Forum and was featured in the league of Extraordinary Women Fast Company Magazine. Somaly also received the Visionaries Award at the Conde Nast Gala, while Barack Obama called for an end to human trafficking, being one of the greatest human rights activists of our time.
Later in 2012, Somaly Mam rang the closing bell on the US NASDAQ and was also awarded an honorable commendation from UNESCO.
Today, the foundation has cemented its place on the global stage and includes high profile board members, such as Susan Sarandon, Daryl Hannah, Ron Livingston, Laurie Holden, and Petra Nemcova on the foundation's Global Advisory Board and Brandee Barker as one of the Board of Directors.
Somaly Writes a Book to Tell Her Story
Somaly Mam’s crusade and journey over the past decades has given her the opportunity to write her autobiography, “The Road of Lost Innocence,” including stories of children and the hardships she faced and the lives lost being forced into human trafficking and the trade of sex slavery. However, there have been many times of joy, celebration, and also reinforcing hope since Somaly’s escape and the creation of her foundation—stories of helping girls to escape, supporting and educating them, and helping them to integrate back into society on a high social standing. Recently, the foundation celebrated the graduation of one of the girls they saved.
Somaly Mam’s life story may be filled with abhorrence, shock, disgust, desperation and sadness, however, it has evolved into one of forgiveness, hope, and service to those in darkness as well as being an inspiration to all mankind to never give up hope and support for those with less opportunity than ourselves.
Somaly Mam, without any doubt is extraordinary. More needs to be shared about the incredible Somaly Mam Foundation, the work they are doing, and their crusade to end sex slavery and the trade of human trafficking.
You can do your part today in helping by paying forward this story about Somaly Mam, her achievements, and how despite incredible adversities, she continued the fight to make the world a better place.
Awards and Achievements
- 1990: Escaped prostitution
- 1996: Founded Acting for Women in Distressing Situations (AFESIP)
- 1998: Awarded for International Co-operation the Prince of Asturias Award
- 2006: Woman of the Year Award by Glamour Woman, CNN Hero, Heroes of Anti-Trafficking Award by the US State Department, Italy Winter Olympic Opening Ceremony Flag bearer, World Children’s Prize for the Rights of Children
- 2007: Somaly Mam Foundation Founded to Combat Sex Slaves Trade, Launch at United Nations. Regis University awards Honorary Doctor of Public Service
- 2008: Human Dignity Award by Roland Berger
- 2009: 100 Most Influential Women of the World Award by Time Magazine, Somaly Mam Scholarship Trust Fund Founded, Body Shop partners with Somaly Mam Foundation
- 2011: Mony Saraphorn Medal by the King of Cambodia. Lipstick Portraits Campaign Launched.
- 2011: Top 100 Women Activists & Campaigners by The Guardian, Top 100 Women in the World by The Daily Beast, 67 Women rescued from Brothel, 7 million signed end of Human Trafficking Campaign, 41 women rescued on Thai/ Cambodian border
- 2012: Nomura CARES Award, Community Development & Philanthropy Prize Posco TJ Park Foundation, Award for Educational Innovation Award, Honorable Commendation by Wenhui, Ring Closing Bell on US NASDAQ, Featured in League of Extraordinary Woman.