Somaly Mam grew up orphaned in a tiny community, a speck of cleared land with bamboo huts in the wooded hills of northeastern Cambodia. She survived by scavenging for her food, sleeping in a hammock and sometimes getting help from a local family. She doesn’t know when she was born exactly, but when she was around 10, a stranger who called himself her grandfather came to her little village and took her away to be his servant. A few years later, when he needed money, he sold her to a brothel in Phnom Penh.
For the next decade, she was forced to endure the unthinkable. But she survived, severely traumatized, yet strong. And committed. Today, when she advocates through the Somaly Mam Foundation for the millions of girls enslaved in brothels in Cambodia and worldwide, she is advocating in part for herself.
Some 5,000 girls have been rescued by her organization since 1996.
Mam, who was likely born in 1970 or 1971, often says the evil done to her and the trauma and rage she continues to experience are what propel her to help others; if she had her choice, she would have a little plot of land, a beautiful garden and family and friends to nourish. But she knows too much to pretend or look away. If she forgets, her nightmares remind her.
During her time at the brothel, Mam suffered repeated rapes by men or gangs of men who paid pennies for their violent pleasure. She was beaten and tortured for resisting until she was so broken she eventually became dead to herself. One time, she tried to escape, and when she was caught, the brothel owner tied her to a bed naked and beat her with a cane. Afterward, he let a group of his friends take turns raping her for a week until she was shaking with fever. When she hadn’t shown enough fear in the punishment room, which housed scorpions and snakes and smelled of sewage, he threw a bucket of maggots on her.
Mam was about 20 when she was finally able to pay off her grandfather’s debts and escape the brothel in 1990. It started ironically with a humanitarian worker from Switzerland who gave her extra money for her services. When she went with him to a hotel, it was the first time she had seen a mattress or a clean bathroom. Through him, she met other aid workers who sincerely wanted to help her, including a Frenchman, Pierre Legros, who focused on who she was, not what she was. They eventually married (they are now divorced but share three children) and spent some time in France, where Mam learned French, one of six languages she speaks. When they moved back to Cambodia, Legros found a job with Doctors Without Borders, and Mam’s relentless courage enabled her to find a new identity.
She was working as a volunteer translator for the Doctors Without Borders clinic in the town of Kratie when a girl from a brothel came in. Seeing this wounded individual ignited something in Mam, and soon she began visiting the brothels herself, distributing condoms and soap and ferrying sick girls to the clinic. She started helping them escape to a village 10 miles away where she paid a seamstress to teach them a vocation.
In 1996, then living in Phnom Penh, Mam and Legros co-founded AFESIP (Agir Pour les Femmes en Situation Precaire, or Acting for Women in Distressing Situations). The goal was not only to help victims escape, but also to give them the tools, both emotionally and educationally, to be on their own.
In time, the organization received international attention, due in part to media coverage and a French documentary. But financially, it continued to flail until 2007, when two young American entrepreneurs, Jared Greenberg and Nicholas Lumpp, helped her launch The Somaly Mam Foundation. The foundation operates as a funding source to support anti-trafficking efforts worldwide and to give victims and survivors a voice. Board members include such activists as Susan Sarandon and Daryl Hannah. When Mam first met Sarandon, she had no idea she was a famous actress. “I didn’t know who she was,” Mam says. “But I can tell you I love her.”
Today, at least 30,000 children are victims of sex trafficking in Cambodia, and at least one-third of the prostitutes in Phnom Penh are kids. Trying to explain the brutality of this industry is impossible, Mam says, even in a country hardened by years of war, dictatorship and genocide under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. She wants to stop the atrocities by getting people involved worldwide and by helping one girl, and then the next. Her organization has branched out to other Southeast Asian countries where the sex trade also thrives, including Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.
Her work is taxing. Justice is often for sale, and police and government officials sometimes collude with the billion-dollar sex industry. Pimps and brothel owners have threatened her life, and her own daughter was once kidnapped for several days. But Mam says the backlash is not the hardest part of the foundation’s work. It’s the rehabilitation that is so difficult, as the girls’ horrific pasts are hard-wired to the present.
“They cannot escape, they cannot escape their mind. They have been destroyed inside,” Mam says, speaking from a shelter for the girls in Phnom Penh. “These girls are completely broken, like a glass completely broken.”
In her autobiography, The Road of Lost Innocence , she writes about these girls, each one sold by parents, kidnapped or lured away with the promise of decent work in the city.
Mam writes of 6-year-old Moteta, who was sold to a brothel by her mother. Shortly thereafter, the owner’s business declined, and he blamed her for bringing an evil spirit to the place. So he put her in a cage, beat her to get rid of the spirit and left her there. Moteta now lives in one of the foundation’s centers. She calls Mam “Grandmother” and Mam promises her no one will hurt her again. Moteta was so used to always doing chores in the brothel that she still tries to clean rooms and wash the other girls’ clothes.
Another lost girl, Tom Dy, was found alone on the street. She was filthy, her hair matted, her skin covered with sarcomas from AIDS. People were throwing stones at her, and she was bleeding. Mam rescued her and brought her to a center where she was cleaned and fed. Soon Tom Dy embraced a caretaking role herself, looking after the younger girls. But she couldn’t survive AIDS. She died in a hospital when Mam was away in Paris working. It was one of Mam’s worst days.
Reintegrating the girls and young women successfully into society can take years. Mam starts by just holding them and telling them they are beautiful. She remains close to them, using Skype when she travels to stay in touch; she is happiest when she has the girls near her because they return the love tenfold.
Sometimes, there are powerful results. One survivor, says Mam, is going to law school. She was rescued at the age of 6 and stayed in the shelter for 14 years. Others learn vocations such as hairdressing and tailoring. And then there is the program called Voices for Change, which gives survivors who have gone through the rehabilitation process an opportunity to share their stories with the public. This can happen through speaking engagements and public service announcements, and in courts of law. Survivors also work in the shelters, helping new victims who need to look in the face of someone who really understands.
“We know them better than anyone,” Mam says. “We want to empower the survivor to be part of the solution.” It’s what Mam does every day, for herself and for others.
In this video from the Somaly Mam Foundation, actress Shay Mitchell covers human trafficking and the efforts of the Somaly Mam Foundation to combat modern slavery.