To say Somaly Mam, a woman in her mid-thirties, had a rough childhood would be putting it lightly. She knows little of where or when she was born. At a young age she worked as a domestic servant for families in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and was later sold to a brothel, where she suffered rape, torture, and violence. She escaped and today she is the founder of Acting for Women in Distressing Situations (AFESIP, its acronym in French), an NGO (non-governmental organization) dedicated to rescuing and protecting thousands of girls and young women enslaved in brothels in Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam.
AFESIP provides girls and women with shelter, legal support, education and training, and eventually reintegrates them into the community. AFESIP also focuses on the causes and effects of trafficking and sex slavery by doing outreach work in AIDS prevention, so girls and women can protect themselves. They also focus on advocacy and campaigning and representation and participation in women’s issues at national, regional, and international forums.
In many parts of the world, sex trafficking has become all too common. Many girls and women are abducted, tricked, or sold by their families into sex slavery, sometimes when they’re as young as five or six years old. Although local men are the main customers, sex tourists from foreign countries are increasingly going to the brothels, too. Girls and women are repeatedly beaten and forced to stay. Lacking money or other resources, they are trapped. Those who do try to escape often face beatings, torture, and death.
Human trafficking takes on a broader definition and one that was not perhaps truly defined until the 2000 UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons. Human trafficking takes many forms. The Protocol states that trafficking is the “...recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons...by improper means, such as force, abduction, fraud, or coercion, for an improper purpose, like forced or coerced labor, servitude, slavery, or sexual exploitation.”
Not all women are sent to work as prostitutes; many are forced (for no money or very little money) to work in people’s homes as servants and nannies, or as factory workers or agricultural laborers. It’s a worldwide problem and the statistics on it differ greatly. Somaly has remained strong, despite extreme resistance. In December 2004, the AFESIP shelter was attacked and close to thirty men and women took ninety-one women and girls. This was in retaliation for an earlier hotel rescue by the Department of Anti-Trafficking and Juvenile Protection of the Ministry of Interior of Cambodia.
In 2006, Somaly’s 14-year-old daughter, Ning, was kidnapped and raped (but later found alive) in what was widely considered to be retaliation for Somaly’s humanitarian work. Somaly Mam continues her mission despite the struggles she’s endured. In 2006 she was honored as one of Glamour Magazine’s Women of the Year at Carnegie Hall in New York City, smiling happily onstage with one of the girls she rescued. Her strength against terrible odds—and her continuing mission to help girls and women—makes her an extraordinary woman.
Somaly’s book, The Road to Innocence, will be released soon, detailing her life story. In an interview in the London Sunday Times, she says: “It’s what I’ve been through that gives me the strength to fight back.”