Somaly Mam: Inextinguishable Hope

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At first glance, one might mistake Somaly Mam for a model. Her beauty may be arresting, but her resilience is what draws girls and young women to seek safety and solace by her side at AFESIP (Agir Pour les Femmes en Situation Precaire), a non-governmental organization in Cambodia, which provides shelter and healing for victims of sex trafficking. Mam, a former sex slave who was sold by a man posing as her grandfather when she was a girl, endured life in a brothel for more than a decade until she escaped her captors. Now she runs her eponymous Somaly Mam Foundation and receives accolades such as being a CNN Hero and one of Fortune magazine’s Most Powerful Women. Yet, her work to instill a sense of self-worth and hope in the lives of young women is her greatest reward.

Paste: You understand the pain of the girls and women you help, because you were once in their shoes. In your own personal struggles to escape slavery, was there one moment of fear or desperation that you overcame and that gives you strength to help others today?
Somaly Mam: I cannot think of one moment, but a combination of all moments together that give me this strength.

To see every day the girls who are raped, beaten, tortured—nobody can understand how hard a victim’s life is. I know exactly what it is, and I can feel it. What I can do is to stand by them, give them love, fight for them, and rescue, empower, and rehabilitate them. I can give them a voice and a choice in their own life.

Paste: In your view, what are the primary factors that make Cambodia (and other countries) a dangerous place for girls and women?
Somaly Mam: It’s not easy to explain. It is a combination of 30 years of war, poverty, poor education, gender discrimination, people sacrificing their lives for the well-being of the family, and so many other factors that I can’t describe. All of these things together have led to trauma, and to alcoholism, drug abuse, and domestic violence. In Cambodia, gender equality is not yet the reality. Women and girls are devalued, and for this reason, women become the victims—they are sold, they are abused, they are exploited.

Poverty is also a key factor. Families are so poor, they have nothing, they can give nothing to their children, and the little girls are the ones who are sold. If there is no hope for the future, then there is no reason to invest in the girls.

And finally, the corruption makes it very difficult to protect the women and children who are victims of this profitable industry. We advocate for rule of law: to be sure that the right laws to protect victims and prosecute traffickers are in place, and that they are followed. We work closely with the government and the anti-trafficking police, and our survivors train them to recognize and address trafficking cases. With this, we have started to see real change for the better.

Paste: Several celebrities are involved with your Somaly Mam Foundation. Are there pros and cons to using celebrities as spokespeople?
Somaly Mam: Yes, as with everything there are pros and cons. Some people criticize our organization when they see our celebrities and parties in the press. But what they do not see is how important it is that the celebrity shines new light on our work, on our team, by talking about this issue and engaging their supporters. We only work with celebrities who truly love our girls, who truly care about fighting sex slavery and who are willing to do something real. When someone like Susan Sarandon helps me or visits me, I do not see her as celebrity—she is my friend, she is a mother, she makes sandwiches for my girls when we visit New York.

Paste: Describe one or more memorable moments that occurred during the visit with Nick Kristof and Meg Ryan when they came to see you in Cambodia during the filming of the PBS documentaries for Half the Sky.
Somaly Mam: I remember many moments, but the one that I will remember for my entire life is when we went to the brothel! It was dangerous and unpredictable, and we didn’t know if we would survive, but Nick wanted to come no matter what. He said, “I’m going with you to rescue these girls.” At that time I was so surprised and shocked that he wanted to come! But this was such an intense moment that I will never forget my entire life.

Paste: What is the one thing that must change before slavery can be eradicated?
Somaly Mam: Having the conversation is great, but we need to take more action. We also need to be more efficient and organized—we need to develop the technology to fight the traffickers and beat them. They are organized—we must be more organized and have a stronger network. At the last Google Ideas summit in Los Angeles we talked a lot about this, but now we need to take action and do something about it.

Paste: What is your hope for the impact of telling your story to the world?
Somaly Mam: My hope is to make people understand the reality of human trafficking, and not be scared to help the victims.

My story is just one example of what this issue really is, but there are so many other stories out there. So many girls are still in the sex industry, so it is my job to keep going, to save one girl at a time. I hope that Half the Sky can also show people the solutions to the problems, and the joy along with the suffering—where there is despair there is also hope.

I want all of you to help, and be a voice for all the victims all around the world. Let’s create a world that we are proud to call home.

The track associated with this story is from Brooke Waggoner, who lent her music to the Half the Sky movement.