Jared Greenberg didn't expect Somaly Mam to meet him at the airport in Phnom Penh. After all, she was an award-winning human rights activist, the head of a multinational organization. He was an idealistic college graduate who'd foolishly promised to raise her a million dollars the week before.
"I was so moved that she was there," he says, remembering that first meeting. "Right away, she started talking about trafficking."
Born in northeastern Cambodia—she's not sure exactly which year—Mam's life story offers bleak insight into the ravages of poverty. She grew up in a forest village near the Vietnamese border. At 14 she was married to a soldier who abused her. When he disappeared two years later, an older relative sold Mam into prostitution to pay his debts. For the next three years she endured beatings, torture and constant rape at the hands of pimps and clients.
Mam finally found an opportunity to leave Phnom Penh's brothels when she met and married a Frenchman. Together, they moved to France. And this is where her story might have ended. Except that she came back to Cambodia.
"I couldn't look at a girl who is suffering and not want to help," she says in English, her accent a mélange of French and Khmer. And so the second part of Mam's life began.
At any time, nearly 12.3 million people worldwide live as slaves, according to the State Department. Almost all of them have been kidnapped into forced labor by organized crime cartels or sold into slavery by relatives who live in desperate poverty. Although some victims end up working as indentured servants, the vast majority are sold into prostitution.
In Cambodia, a nation still recovering from the psychological scars of dictator Pol Pot's forced labor camps and genocide of the 1970s, as many as 100,000 people work in forced prostitution, or sex slavery. The United Nations estimates that nearly a third of those slaves are children, kept in brothels like those in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh.
"Part of you never heals," Mam says. Despite the fact that she still has post-traumatic stress and nightmares about her own imprisonment, Mam returned to Cambodia's brothels, drawn by the stories of children whose suffering had been even worse than hers.
Mam found victims as young as 6 years old. Clients pay extra for very young girls, because they believe they are having sex with virgins. Many of these girls—nearly a third, according to USAID estimates—have been infected with the AIDS virus.
Mam's humanitarian efforts started small. She brought soap and condoms to the brothels. When she came across girls who had been very badly abused or injured, she tried to arrange for them to see a doctor. In 1996, she and her then-husband founded AFESIP, an organization dedicated to helping women and children who had escaped sex slavery. Mam and her husband secured some international funding and built a small shelter on the outskirts of Phnom Penh for escaped prostitutes who were otherwise at risk of being sold into slavery a second time.