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Somaly Mam

Survivor & Anti-Sex Slavery Activist

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

I chose to lean in, despite great fear and uncertainty, for the sake of those who would never have the opportunity to help themselves.

I call myself Somaly. I do not know my real name or age. I was born just before the Khmer Rouge in the Mondulkiri province of Cambodia, and then sold to a man who posed as my grandfather—I was probably 12. He began by asking me to cook and bring the water. But soon he began to beat me, and then he violated me.

This was only the beginning. He sold me to pay his own debts, and I spent many years in the brothels of Phnom Penh. I was raped, beaten, called worthless, and nearly lost my will to live. I made a friend in the brothel, and we supported one another. But one day, the brothel owner shot her in the head, right in front of me.

In that moment, everything changed. I escaped from the brothel. A French man helped me escape to his country, where I experienced a world of finery, so different from my own. I could not enjoy it, however, as I knew other women and girls continued to suffer back in my homeland. For the first time, I had a voice and a choice in my life. And so I returned to Cambodia. I chose to lean in, despite great fear and uncertainty, for the sake of those who would never have the opportunity to help themselves.

It began with just one girl, named Tom Dy. I found her on the street, suffering from HIV/AIDS: her skin was raw and broken. I took her home. She became the first of many, and soon a friend’s empty house became our first center. In 1996, we registered as a Non-Governmental Organization, AFESIP (Agir Pour les Femmes en Situation Précaire). In the following years, we established three shelters in Cambodia, and helped to start programs in Vietnam, Thailand and Laos. We built a team of outreach workers, investigators, medics and educators, and I worked day and night to connect each girl with the services they needed. Soon after, Tom Dy passed, and we chose to name our Phnom Penh center after her.

In 2007, two American men contacted me wanting to help. We created a plan for a US-based foundation to raise funds, elevate the survivor voice as part of the solution to end trafficking, and strive for the eradication of slavery through campaigns and strategic partnerships worldwide. Today, we are doing just that.

My programs have assisted thousands of survivors, and have reached tens of thousands in the sex industry with educational messages on their rights and options. But I can never rest: I’m always thinking about the women who, despite our best efforts, are still in trouble. There is much work still to be done.

I have never looked back on returning to Cambodia. I fill my centers with love, and the women we serve give us all hope for the future. I forgive those in my past because life is love, and love has no condition. I truly believe that with compassion, passion and action, we can change the world; together we can end slavery.

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