Cambodian anti-sex trafficking campaigner Mam Somaly was yesterday named in a Guardian newspaper list of top 100 women for International Women’s Day.
Named for her work as founder of AFESIP, rescuing women from brothels and supporting their recovery, Mam Somaly grew up in extreme poverty under the Khmer Rouge regime.
She was sold into sexual slavery when she was 12, eventually ending up in a Phnom Penh brothel where she endured unimaginable daily torture and rape. After being made to watch as another girl, her best friend, was murdered, Mam Somaly escaped and was helped out of Cambodia by a French aid worker.
Instead of trying to rebuild her life in France, where she married, Mam Somaly returned to Cambodia to help girls who hadn’t been so lucky. In 1996, she set up her organisation AFESIP (Action for Women in Distressing Situations), to rescue girls and women from brothels and support their recovery.
She has already helped more than 4,000 women and children, some as young as five, escape sexual slavery in south-east Asia and in 2007 set up the Somaly Mam Foundation, to raise awareness, campaign for change and fund projects to rescue and rehabilitate women and children sold into slavery.
Her work has come at a terrible personal cost. Her life has been threatened by pimps and brothel owners, and in 2006, her 14-year-old daughter was kidnapped and raped as retaliation for the work her mother does. Mam has given microloans to former slaves to finance craft work and agriculture ventures.
“It’s so beautiful to see the girls come sad and then after a few months and years and years to see them get married to see them go to school,” she told Australian TV channel SBS in an interview during a tour there last month.
About 7,000 women in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam have been helped since she started her organisation over the past 16 years, she estimated.
But with 2.5 million women and children sold in the trade each year, she was on a tour of Australia in February to raise awareness of sex trafficking and seek help from luckier young people who have the power to do something.
When asked why she persists in the face of such adversity and periods of desperation, she has said: “I don’t want to go without leaving a trace.”
Her work has been mentioned by United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a recent address to a US anti-trafficking committee. “I recently was in Cambodia, and it is just so overwhelmingly heartbreaking and inspiring to see these young girls,” said Clinton.
“One girl lost her eyes – to punish her, the owner of the brothel had stabbed her in the eye with a nail,” Clinton continued. “She was the most optimistic, cheerful young woman, just a tremendous spirit. What she wants to do when she grows up is help other victims of trafficking, so there is just an enormous amount of work to be done.”
In this week’s issue of Newsweek, Mam Somaly credits Clinton’s visit with making her work more respectable in the eyes of her government. “She protects our lives,” she told the magazine. Many of the shelter’s children now keep photos of Clinton on their walls. “Our people never paid attention. Hillary has opened their eyes, so now they have no choice; by her work she has saved many lives in Cambodia – our government is changing,” Mam Somaly told Newsweek.