New Internationalist

Somaly Mam

Issue 430

Her fight to end sexual slavery around the globe

Somaly Mam talked with Roxana Olivera

Photo by ROXANA OLIVERA
Photo by ROXANA OLIVERA

Somaly Mam knows the harsh truth of the commercial sexual exploitation of children. For years she lived it from the inside. Mam was just 12 when her grandfather sold her into the sex trade in Cambodia. In the ensuing decade she was traded through brothels across Southeast Asia where she suffered unimaginable horrors. She counts herself fortunate to have escaped death at the hands of entrepreneurial pimps and brothel keepers. But, unable to forget the faces of the girls she left behind, Mam decided to rescue them. Today, she fights child sex trafficking, sexual slavery, illegal confinement and sexual violence at home and abroad.

‘I want you to know what is going on in Cambodia, in Asia and around the world,’ says Mam, speaking in New York City at an anti-trafficking rally organized by The Body Shop and ECPAT (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes). ‘Four-year-old girls are being raped. Five-year-olds are being tortured. They are being robbed of their innocence. These children are being sold, trafficked for sex… And the world somehow puts up with it.’

Mam has won international acclaim and numerous awards for her activism. In fact, her campaign has become so prominent that the sex entrepreneurs want her out of the way. Mam has been threatened countless times. She’s had a gun held to her head. And when those tactics failed, the pimps attempted to coerce her into silence by kidnapping and raping her 14-year-old daughter. Those brutal acts of intimidation, however, have only made Mam more determined to secure the release of the children she champions.

Mam has infiltrated brothels to save enslaved girls, engineering their escape and providing them with a safe refuge. She has, without hesitation, pressured the police to raid brothels – in spite of the fact that the legal system in Southeast Asia often supports the criminals, not the victims. In 1997, Mam and her ex-husband founded AFESIP, an organization dedicated to rescuing, housing and rehabilitating women and children in Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam who have been sexually exploited. Ten years later, Mam launched her own not-for-profit organization in the US. The Somaly Mam Foundation has a mandate similar to that of AFESIP but with a more global focus. Under Mam’s leadership, the two organizations seek to shelter and teach rescued women and children new skills to start new lives. So far the two groups have aided more than 5,000 victims of sexual exploitation.

But, she stresses, there is still much left to do. ‘Scores of young girls are sold into sexual slavery everyday,’ she declares. ‘Each one has a ray of hope that someone will save them.’

While she herself was captive, Mam recalls: ‘I wanted so much for someone to ask me how I had come to that brothel, but no-one ever did. I desperately wanted someone to love me, to care for me. So how could I possibly now look the other way, knowing that a child is suffering in silence?’ In a soft, eggshell voice, Mam tells me, ‘I couldn’t sleep at night if I didn’t keep trying to save those girls.’

Propelled by her own experience, and her desire to rescue trafficked women and children, Mam wrote her memoir, The Road of Lost Innocence. She penned it in part to raise public awareness about sexual slavery and to force change. But she also wrote it because of the pain of revisiting old memories of her own exploitation. ‘Perhaps journalists will stop asking me to recount my story over and over again, because it is very difficult to keep repeating it,’ she explains. ‘This burden of memory weighs me down. It makes me want to die inside.’

The book traces Mam’s life in and out of sexual slavery. She recounts the stories of other children as well, children who are sold by their families – often by their own mothers – for as little as $10. She writes of children who are beaten, drugged, tortured, raped and sewn up before they are resold. And of others who attempt suicide in a desperate effort to free themselves. She writes of children infected with AIDS. ‘These children are some of the thousands of victims of the burgeoning business of rape for profit,’ she says.

At least for now the kids in her shelters have hope. In order to sustain that safety, though, Mam needs every penny she can muster. A few shelters have had to close due to lack of resources, yet the number of girls seeking refuge keeps growing. In Cambodia, for example, it is estimated that 1 in 40 girls is sold into sexual slavery. By Mam’s count, 2.4 million young women and children will be forced into prostitution around the world in the next year.

Money for shelters isn’t everything. Mam knows that. ‘It is equally important to denounce those who are committing these atrocities,’ she says. ‘Those who endorse them and those who turn a blind eye.’

As Mam signs banners calling for an end to sex trafficking, I ask her how she can keep going amid so much despair and human cruelty. She turns to her three children who are nearby. She embraces them tightly and replies: ‘My children give me that strength. My children and the girls we’ve saved have taught me how to love, how to be the mother I never had.’

For more information, see www.somaly.org and The Road of Lost Innocence (Random House, New York 2009).

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