article

03.06.11

Women in the World: Somaly Mam, Cambodia

She was raped at 12 and forced into marriage at 14. Or at least Somaly Mam thinks that was her age—abandoned as a baby, she’s not sure what year she was born. At 16 she was sold to a brothel, where she endured years of torture and was forced to watch a pimp shoot her best friend in the head. In 1991 she met and married a French human-rights worker and fled to Paris. But four years later she returned to Cambodia—and to the scene of her horrific abuse. Pretending to be a nurse for Doctors Without Borders, she infiltrated Cambodia’s brothels and handed out condoms. Later she founded an NGO that operates safe havens for victims of the sex trade in Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos. To date, the group has saved 4,000 women and girls. But Mam’s work is nowhere near done—there are some 50,000 sex slaves and prostitutes in Cambodia alone; worldwide at least 2 million are sold into sex slavery every year, a quarter of them young children. Despite these daunting numbers, nothing can deter Mam, petite and softspoken, from her crusade. In 2006, in a truly macabre warning to stop her crusade, her own 14-year-old daughter was kidnapped, raped, and nearly sold into slavery. Once reunited, Mam took her daughter’s face in her hands and said: “You’ve suffered what you’ve suffered. Now you take that pain and you help others.”