Somaly Mam is ACLW's Asia Pacific Patron.
Born to a tribal minority family in the Mondulkiri province of Cambodia, Somaly Mam began life in extreme poverty. With limited options as a severely marginalized ethnic group, and living in unimaginable despair, her family often resorted to desperate means to survive. This confluence of dire circumstances led to Somaly being sold into sexual slavery by a man who posed as her grandfather. To this day, due to the passing of time and the unreliability of a wounded memory, Somaly does not know who this man was to her.
Yet his actions set her on an unimaginable path fraught with danger, desperation, and ultimately triumph. Somaly was forced to work in a brothel along with other women and children for many years, and was brutally tortured and raped. One night, she was made to watch as her best friend was viciously murdered. Deciding then that she would no longer “keep her silence,” Somaly heroically escaped her captors and began to build a new life abroad.
Somaly is not alone in her experience. Human trafficking is considered the world’s second largest, fastest growing organized crime. There are as many as 30 million people toiling as modern slaves around the globe, with an estimated 2 million women and children sold every year. Profits from human trafficking business are as high as $32 billion annually. Children as young as three or four can be sold for as little as $100 and forced to serve up to 30 clients per day.
The depth and extensive network of traffickers worldwide creates a criminal industry alarmingly difficult to stop. Yet Somaly vowed never to forget those she left behind and soon after escaping slavery, returned to Southeast Asia. In 1996, Somaly established a Cambodian non-governmental organization called AFESIP (from the French acronym for “Acting for Women in Distressing Situations”). Under Somaly's leadership, AFESIP employs a holistic approach that ensures victims not only escape their plight, but have the emotional and economic strength to face the future with hope. With the launch of the Somaly Mam Foundation in 2007, Somaly has established a funding vehicle to support anti-trafficking organizations and to provide victims and survivors with a platform from which their voices can be heard around the world. SMF takes a multilateral and long-term approach to the issue of slavery, and works closely with partners on the ground in Southeast Asia. The Foundation’s approach rests on three pillars:
Victim Services: As Somaly says, “It can take five minutes to rescue a girl from the brothel; it can take five years to help her recover.” The Foundation’s partners in Southeast Asia rescue victims from situations of slavery and provide food, shelter, and medical and psychological care. After basic needs have been met, education and vocational training programs prepare survivors for independent and sustainable lives of dignity in trades such as hairdressing and tailoring. This holistic approach focuses on long-term success and well-being of survivors and their families. Since inception, these programs have provided comprehensive services to thousands of victims of the commercial sex industry across Southeast Asia.
Survivor Empowerment: Using Somaly’s life as an example, SMF believes in the ripple effect: in the impact one woman can have if given the chance. Our team of 12 survivor leaders now plays a critical role in every step of the journey, from rescue to recovery to reintegration, as activists, advocates and educators. These Voices For Change leaders work alongside the AFESIP teams, as well as participating in mass media and special events, training sessions, community outreach, and legal proceedings, to lend their support and their expertise to the conversation. They are the next generation, and they embody strength, hope, and a critical piece of the solution to end sex slavery.
Eradicating Slavery: SMF works with government officials, law enforcement agents, and local community members in Southeast Asia and the US to raise awareness and understanding of the complex issue of human trafficking, prevent future cases, and reduce stigmas that surround its victims and survivors. SMF also engages mass media, celebrities and online communities to promote anti-trafficking on a global level, and our PROJECT FUTURES global platform engages a passionate network of volunteers, students, and young professionals in grassroots events and campaigns.
Through the partnership of AFESIP and the Somaly Mam Foundation, millions have been reached worldwide. In 2009, SMF’s partner organizations did not face a single day of food shortages and in 2010, SMF donated over $700,000 directly to shelters around the world. Over 7,000 women and children in Southeast Asia have been rescued from sexual slavery and have been able to reshape their lives since the inception of AFESIP in 1996. Government officials, law enforcement agents, and community members have been trained to recognize and properly address cases of human trafficking, creating a network of support for women in Southeast Asia. Somaly’s life-changing work has not gone unrecognized: she has been honored as a Glamour Woman of the Year, one of TIME Magazine’s 100 People of the Year, one of Fortune Magazine’s Most Powerful Women, and received recognition from the US Department of State.
Somaly Mam has dedicated her life’s work to saving victims, building shelters and programs for healing, and empowering survivors to become agents of change. Though her family has encountered terrifying death threats and violence, Somaly has maintained remarkable resilience in the face of danger. Asked why she continues to fight in the face of such fierce and frightening opposition, Somaly resolutely responds, "I don't want to go without leaving a trace."
Somaly and her team have rescued women and children from exploitation and abuse and assisted them on a journey to health, hope, and economic independence. She has left a trace in the life of thousands and continues to encourage survivors to become advocates of next-generation change.
Learn more and support Somaly Mam's work at www.somaly.org