EDITOR’S NOTE- MAY 2014:
Due to the recent allegations against Somaly Mam, I struggled with the idea of removing her from my list of International Icons. However, regardless of the outcome of these allegations, Mam’s Foundation has achieved a great deal of positive results in helping young women who were forced into prostitution. Therefore, I’ve decided to leave this article up here in the hopes that any of you who come across this will instead focus your energy and efforts towards helping the many young women and children who are still suffering at the hands of despicable criminals in the sex slavery and human trafficking trade.
The greatest strength a person can demonstrate is when she herself has been the victim of the most heinous crimes yet manages to dedicate a lifetime to ensuring that those same crimes are not committed against others. This is Somaly Mam’s story, a remarkable woman from Cambodia who spent the earlier part of her life forced into prostitution, escaped and has for years now, put forth tireless efforts towards rescuing women and children from sex slavery and trafficking.
Against seemingly insurmountable obstacles, Somaly has saved numerous women and children from a fate worse than death. She has risked her own safety and her family’s safety, courageously fighting against the world’s third largest illegal money making operations. Raising awareness and funding have been at the forefront of Somaly’s successes, with her foundation garnering celebrity support. She has changed the lives of all those women and children for whom life would have ended abruptly, violently and far sooner had it not been for Somaly’s passionate resolve.
Born to a tribal minority family in the Mondulkiri province of Cambodia, Somaly Mam began life in extreme poverty. With limited options as a severely marginalized ethnic group, and living in unimaginable despair, her family often resorted to desperate means to survive. This confluence of dire 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, due to the passing of time and the unreliability of a wounded memory, Somaly still does not know who this man was to her. Yet his actions set her on an unimaginable path fraught with danger, desperation, and ultimately triumph.
Forced to work in a brothel along with other children, Somaly was brutally tortured and raped on a daily basis. One night, she was made to watch as her best friend was viciously murdered. Fearing she would meet that same fate, Somaly heroically escaped her captors and set about building a new life for herself. She vowed never to forget those left behind and has since dedicated her life to saving victims and empowering survivors.
In 1996, Somaly established a Cambodian non-governmental organization called AFESIP (Agir Pour les Femmes en Situation Precaire). Under Somaly’s leadership, AFESIP employs a holistic approach that ensures victims not only escape their plight, but have the emotional and economic strength to face the future with hope. With the launch of the Somaly Mam Foundation in 2007, Somaly has established a funding vehicle to support anti-trafficking organizations and to provide victims and survivors with a platform from which their voices can be heard around the world.
For her tireless efforts, Somaly has justifiably garnered world-wide respect and is now a renowned leader at the forefront of the anti-trafficking struggle. Universally recognized as a visionary for her courage, dignity, ingenuity, and resilience, Somaly was honored 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 (WCPRC), Glamour Magazine’s 2006 Woman of the Year Award, and has won accolades from the US Department of Homeland Security.
But Somaly’s success has come at a price. She and her family have faced terrifying death threats and violence. Asked why she continues to fight in the face of such fierce and frightening opposition, Somaly resolutely responds, “I don’t want to go without leaving a trace.”
Despite the fact that she is known the world over and has certainly earned a life of luxury and repose, Somaly continues to work hard in the Cambodian recovery centers, living among the women and children she rescues and staying by their side as they walk the difficult path to recovery and freedom.