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 at a very young age. 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.
But she vowed never to forget those she left behind, and soon returned to Southeast Asia. She dedicated her life’s work to saving victims, building shelters and programs for healing, and empowering survivors to become agents of change. In 1996, Somaly established a Cambodian non-governmental organization called AFESIP (Agir Pour les Femmes en Situation Precaire).
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. Somaly estimates that she and her team have assisted over 7,000 victims to date.
Universally recognized as a visionary for her courage, dignity, ingenuity, and resilience, Somaly has been honored as one of Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People of 2009 and 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, one of Fortune Magazine’s Most Powerful Women in 2011, one of Fast Company's 2012 League of Extraordinary Women, and has won accolades from the US Department of Homeland Security and her work recognized by the US Department of State.
She has been a guest on the Tyra Banks show, Fox and Friends, America’s Most Wanted, and was featured on Oprah and CNN. She has participated in the World Economic Forum at Davos and DLD conference, the 2011 Newark Peace Summit (alongside the Dalai Lama) and conferences including Imagine Solutions, Womenetics, EG, and Crimes Against Children.
But Somaly's success has come at a price. She and her family have faced terrifying death threats and violence. 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." Despite the fact that she is known the world over and has certainly earned a life of luxury and repose, Somaly continues to spend most of her time in the Cambodian recovery centers with the women and children she rescues, staying by their side as they walk the difficult path to recovery and freedom.
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