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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

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.

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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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