“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” – Anne Frank
Somaly Mam is a woman whose commitment to ending modern-day slavery inspires me. I have no qualms with saying that she is my hero; a woman I admire, a woman I would love to meet, a woman I would feel lucky to work side by side with. Her Cambodian NGO, AFESIP (Agir Pour les Femmes en Situation Precaire, or Acting for Woman in Distressing Situations) was founded in 1996, to care for those victimized by trafficking and sex slavery. With the long-term goals of successful and permanent rehabilitation and reintegration, AFESIP has since transformed the lives of thousands of victims by offering care and teaching occupational skills to those vulnerable or victimized, providing outreach in HIV/AIDS prevention, and actively advocating to end human trafficking. Fast forward eleven years later, and The Somaly Mam Foundation was founded by two men introduced and ultimately moved by the movement, and by Mam herself. Her vision to create a U.S. based organization to support her mission and her life’s passion came to fruition and Mam is now one of the leading activists in today’s movement to end modern-day slavery.
Mam has since collected numerous awards recognizing her achievements; among them, she “was honored as one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2009 and was featured as a CNN Hero. She is also the recipient of the Prince of Asturias Award for International Cooperation, The World’s Children’s Prize for the Rights of the Child (WCPRC), Glamour Magazine’s 2006 Woman of the Year Award, and has won accolades from the US Department of Homeland Security.” But her success today came at an unfortunate price.
Mam herself is a survivor. Around the age of 12 her parents sold her to her “grandfather,” a loose term in Cambodia simply meaning elder man, who made her his indentured slave, and eventually, after attacking Mam himself, sold her into a lifetime of slavery. She was forced to marry a man who would treat her exactly as her grandfather did, and then spent her entire childhood forced to work in brothels, being brutally tortured and raped on a daily basis. She was even forced to watch as her friend was shot in the head by a pimp for disobeying. Her full story is recounted in her autobiography, The Road of Lost Innocence.
I do not relay that last paragraph to upset or depress, only to prove her heroism. Her book both broke my heart and renewed hope that one individual, no matter what their past is, can rise above the life they have been given and even one person can make a difference in this world. Mam was one of the lucky ones. She eventually got out of the business and married a Frenchman, who helped to start and fund AFESIP. Today, Mam continues to work in her safe houses in Cambodia and throughout South East Asia, giving the love she never received to the thousands of girls she has saved.
I’ve read and watched numerous interviews of Mam and the same thing always astounds me; Mam would never consider herself a hero. She accepts her awards in vain, never feeling as though she has deserved them, or has ever done enough. She’s admitted to bouts of depression and thoughts of suicide. She has been held at gunpoint and her life has been threatened numerous times. She has lived through her daughter being kidnapped and raped by pimps who do not appreciate the work that Mam is doing. She does not know how old she is, who her parents are, or what her real name is. Yet Mam continues to risk her life, raid brothels and take care of as many girls as she can. Her story is what led me to this movement, and it is her story that will continue to inspire me as I do what I can, with what I have, to support her mission.