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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

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."

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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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