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Born in northeastern Cambodia, Somaly Mam's life story offers bleak insight into the ravages of poverty. (Somaly Mam Foundation)

One Woman's Journey to Save Child Slaves

Former child prostitute Somaly Mam has made it her mission to rescue victims of sex slavery throughout the world

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.

It was slow going. Forced prostitution is a billion-dollar business for organized crime. Many mafias had paid off the local police, and law enforcement was hesitant to get involved in Mam's cause.

Mam nearly had to shut down her shelter when she ran short of funding. Another time, after she persuaded police to raid a high-profile brothel, a gang of hired thugs torched the gates of her shelter and kidnapped nearly a hundred of the girls.

"We have to stop the organized crime," Mam says. "If no, we cannot save the girls."

But as Mam's opponents grew stronger, so did her international reputation. She garnered support from Vital Voices, an organization that helps causes like Mam's achieve greater impact.

"She was put in circumstances beyond anything that most of us could endure," says Melanne Verveer, co-founder and chairman of Vital Voices. "Our world changes for the better because of people like her."

In August 2006, journalist Mariane Pearl profiled Mam for Glamour magazine. The article inspired unprecedented attention and donations from readers.

"The piece was a great success because people felt like they knew her," says Pearl, who remembers that Mam met her at the airport with a necklace of flowers. "She has won something just by her ability to love, and so she's an example for others."

Other news organizations asked to interview Mam. She appeared on CNN and in the New York Times.

Jared Greenberg first heard Mam's name in the news. When he learned about her cause, he pledged to raise a million dollars to support it. At the time, he was working as a management consultant. He told his company he wanted to take a week off to visit Cambodia, to find a way to raise money for AFESIP. His supervisor gave him his first donation.

In Cambodia, Greenberg and a friend, Nicholas Lumpp, met with Mam. She told them she needed to solicit international funds, but that running her shelters kept her busy in Cambodia. Together, they planned the Somaly Mam Foundation, which would use Mam's increasingly well-known name to solicit funds in the United States and abroad. The foundation would then direct these funds to AFESIP, which would use them to support its growing network of international shelters.

Greenberg and Lumpp launched the Somaly Mam Foundation in September 2007. By June 2008, they had raised that first million.

Humanitarian rights foundations also gave Mam prizes. In 2008, the World Children's Prize for the Rights of the Child chose Somaly Mam for an international award. The 6.5 million children who voted worldwide to choose a winner included former child soldiers and survivors of sexual slavery.

"You can't read about Somaly's life story and forget it," says Magnus Bergmar, CEO of the organization that gave out the prize. Bergmar says he has received letters from children all over the world, many of them survivors of violence, expressing support for Mam's work. "She is a role model for girls' rights."

In March 2007, the United Nations launched its Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking, and in February 2008 the organization held its first forum in Vienna. The State Department issued its annual "Trafficking in Persons Report" in June 2008, billed as the most comprehensive to date. The report identified victims in Cambodia, India, China and many other nations.

Mam has noticed a growing number of girls who have been sent to Phnom Penh from abroad. Women from China, Korea and Moldavia have begun appearing at the doorsteps of the Phnom Penh shelter, as well as new shelters in Laos and Vietnam. Pimps have responded to growing international vigilance by moving girls more frequently and further distances.

In September 2008, partly to give voice to those girls, Mam published her memoir, The Road of Lost Innocence, published by Spiegel & Grau. At times sad, at times painful, it describes the brutality and assault that marked Mam's childhood and the almost inadvertent way she fell into activism. Mam was born to a family that ate meat once a year. Before she was 10, her parents disappeared, and she was adopted by an older man. He was the one who arranged her first abusive marriage and the one who sold her into sex slavery when it ended. She called him "Grandfather."

As a young girl in the brothels of Phnom Penh, Mam says, she was a difficult prostitute. She fought clients, and they beat her repeatedly. Once, she helped two new girls escape from the pimp, and he paid her back bytorturing her with electric shocks. At other times, he assaulted her. Once, she tried to escape, but a taxi driver sold her back.

Although it is the narrative of her own life, Mam's story offers constant glimpses into the world that millions of children still inhabit.

Nearly 4,000 have escaped and found shelter and vocational training at AFESIP shelters, Mam estimates. She tries to speak with each new arrival personally, to offer a sympathetic ear and the support they never received from a family.

"I was victim myself," she says. "I need people to listen to me."

Although Mam still travels for conferences and interviews, she has her team handle much of AFESIP's media relations. Now, she focuses on talking with and providing comfort to the girls who arrive at the shelters. Despite her years of activism, Mam says she always carries the memory of her past with her, and only talking about it can keep those memories at bay.

"When I listen to the girls I feel like they are my own self," she says. "Sometimes I feel tired when I close my eyes and I know people are still raping and abusing."

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About Anika Gupta
Anika Gupta

Anika Gupta’s writing has appeared in India and the United States, including in Business Today magazine, where she serves as its first digital content editor, the Hindustan Times newspaper and Smithsonian magazine.

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