Somaly Mam: Fighting Sex Trafficking in Cambodia


by Alanna Gomez

Somaly Mam is a dedicated, courageous, beautiful woman. She is invited to speak on television, at conferences, has been featured in documentaries and receives awards from around the world. Born into a small tribe in rural Cambodia, she has survived extreme poverty, sexual slavery, death threats, and much violence. Despite this, Somaly founded AFESIP (Agir Pour les Femmes en Situation Precaire) in Cambodia in 1996, and then the Somaly Mam Foundation in 2007. Both organizations are dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating girls who have been forced into sexual slavery, some from the age of only 3 years old.

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Cambodia has a shocking rate of young girls trafficked into prostitution, driven by the destruction a deadly genocide and war left on this South Asian country, nestled between Vietnam and Thailand. Soldiers with guns take what they want and peacekeepers buy what they want. Sex tourists from around the world flock to the country with a ceaseless appetite for young, cheap girls. As a result, younger and younger girls are being trafficked. Desperately poor families frequently sell their daughters into brothels.

Somaly was sold by her family at 10 or 11 years old. The man who bought her used her as child labour, and soon raped her. He used her as a sex slave and then sold her to a brothel. She was viciously beaten and forced to take many, many ‘clients.’ Somaly says that while she is soft, she is also very strong. “You can beat me until blood comes out of my skin, [if] I don’t want something, [then] I don’t want it.” When she refused to take clients, she was beaten again. She was forced to see her best friend murdered in front of her by the brothel owner.

She eventually escaped and fled to another country. However, it didn’t take long for her to come back for the girls she left behind.  She explains, “The girls and me, we are the same because we have the same life. I am them, they are me…I help them, but they help me too.”

“My dream is to see my girls become me, helping the victims of sex slavery.” Most of the girls do indeed want to be just like her. They help with her work, educate people, visit girls in brothels, share their stories and sometimes assist in raids on brothels, comforting the girls who are being rescued.

One of these girls, Samana, was sold when she was 13. A family friend had offered her a job in the capital city, Phnom Penh. When she arrived in the city, she was sold to a woman who operated a brothel. They locked her in a basement for a week. When she refused to take ‘clients’, they beat her, starved her, and electrocuted her. She had to see 10-30 men a day. When she got pregnant, she tells how they aborted her baby. “It was painful, there was lots of blood.” One day, the brothel owner stabbed her in the eye. Instead of getting medical help, she had to continue working. Police found out, raided the brothel and took her to get help. Now, Samana says “I am not angry. I’ll stand taller to help other girls.”

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There is pain, visible pain in the lives of these young girls, but there is also love and affection. To her great credit, Somaly is able to help these girls receive affection again, from each other and from her. This affection is very healing. Somaly wants her girls to be children again, to wipe off their make-up and to make them laugh. She is often very goofy when interacting with the girls. There are several of her centers around the country and her rehabilitation program focuses on helping the girls be confident, and Cambodian. They receive an education but also do things that regular Cambodian children do, like fish, hunt for crabs and learn traditional dances.

It can be hard for the girls to put their experiences into words, so they create songs out of their stories. The girls know each other’s songs and sing them together. Somaly wants to show the world that these girls have a great dignity. She leads them with her heroism and grace, turning them into remarkable young women. Unfortunately, most of the girls are rejected by their families and society, even after being rescued.

There is a taboo against the victims of sexual slavery speaking out. Somaly shatters those taboos, giving a voice to the voiceless victims. One of her most ingenious ideas is her radio show, which gives the girls a place to speak boldly and bluntly before a wide audience about their terrible victimization, enlightening people in Cambodia of the unspeakable suffering inflicted upon these girls.

The raids themselves are very dangerous. Often the military and local police are complicit in the sex trade, so Somaly relies on the anti-trafficking police. She goes undercover into brothels and documents underage girls being held there. With the documentation complete and a report filed, the raid can get underway. The raids are often very dangerous, and the brothels can be heavily protected. If a raid is successful, Somaly can still face retribution, as the traffickers do not like having their income stolen away.

Somaly is inspiring because she continues to do what she can each day. She takes each step, helps each girl, and loves each one. She has observed that “sometimes people want to do so much and they do nothing. I can’t help you, I cannot [they say]. Everyone can help. Everyone can do one thing. Start with your heart, what it wants.”

Even though it is difficult to see a solution to this heart-wrenching situation, Somaly keeps going. She has created a little army of young women, who are becoming real voices of change. She insists “We are going to change Cambodia. We want you to hear from us; if you don’t listen to us, we’ll keep on talking, we’re not tired at all.”