Audrey’s Women of Influence | Somaly Mam, Co-founder and President of the Somaly Mam Foundation
  • by Ada Tseng
  • August 27, 2013
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Influence comes in many forms, from high-profile advocates who are shaping ideas on an international stage to local heroes who are breaking barriers and defying expectations in their own communities. In our inaugural series celebrating influential Asian American women, Audrey Magazine highlights eight newsmakers, activists, leaders and trailblazers who encourage us to pursue our dreams, explore the unknown, and stand up for those without a voice.


by Ada Tseng

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“When I was in the brothels, I felt like I had died inside, even though my body was alive,” says Somaly Mam, a former human trafficking victim who has dedicated her life to ending the sex slave trade around the world. “I would have loved for someone to help me, but there was nobody I could call or trust. These memories inspire me to do what I am doing today. You cannot forget, but you can forgive and love again.”

After being orphaned as a child during Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge rule, Mam was forced into prostitution by an abusive man she called “grandfather,” and she suffered for many years until a French aid worker helped her escape Cambodia in 1993. Mam says that at the time, she had no idea that she would devote herself to this cause, eventually co-founding the French nonprofit foundation AFESIP in 1996 and, in 2007, becoming the president and face of the Somaly Mam Foundation, which supports victim services, eradication efforts, and survivor empowerment from their New York Headquarters. Somaly and her team have rescued over 7,000 women and girls to date, and have touched the lives of tens of thousands more through peer education and outreach efforts.

“My life immediately changed the day I met a girl named Tom Dy who suffered from HIV/AIDS,” says Mam. “She reminded me of my past life in the brothels, and I immediately took her home with me because I wanted her to feel safe. There are more and more girls who need help to build new lives with dignity, but how? It takes five minutes to save them from brothels, but what are you going to do with them? This is the challenge.”

Mam not only participates in raids to help girls as young as 5 escape, but the foundation provides shelters and rehabilitation programs that help reintegrate the victims into the world. When Mam first started AFESIP, she asked trusted friends to help teach the girls how to sew; nowadays, there is education provided for the younger girls, and career training for the older ones, from hairdressing to computer skills and English-language classes.Eradicating human trafficking, now the second most profitable criminal enterprise, requires more global attention. At the Clinton Global Initiative meeting in 2012, President Obama named human trafficking as a national priority, and he became the first ever U.S. president to visit Cambodia. However, a 2013 UN report stated that people trafficked now come from at least 118 countries — 58 percent are for sexual exploitation and most are women, with the number of children increasing.

“When you see a woman sitting on the street, ask yourself who she is, what her story might be, where she might come from,” says Mam. “If she had a choice, maybe she would have chosen something different for her life. Please do not look down on her. Please do not abuse her further. There are a lot of problems in the world, and human trafficking is only part of the larger problem of the breakdown of values and connection between people.”

Mam not only provides this connection for her girls who call her “Mom,” but she encourages them to speak out for themselves through the foundation’s Voices of Change program, run by survivor Sina Vann. Some of the girls also host the “Somaly’s Family” anti-trafficking radio show in Cambodia to spread awareness. By empowering the victims, they are, in a sense, creating a powerful legion of mini Somaly Mams.

“I am so proud of the survivors in the program who stand up and advocate for those whose voices are not being heard,” says Mam. “There is a young generation of leaders who are engaged in this fight, and that gives me great hope for change.”



On the Voices for Change program

Voices for Change is designed to give survivors an opportunity to help themselves by helping others, to have their voices heard in the courts of law and public perception, and to have influence and impact on effectuating change. It is our vision that from those who have struggled through the pain of slavery will arise a new generation of leaders who stand for justice and free will. Some of our survivor-leaders host their own radio talk show, for the purpose of raising awareness in the community: in Cambodia, radio is still the best way to reach the masses.

In collaboration with UNIAP, Voices For Change conduct trainings in combating human trafficking to police, gendarmeries and local authorities who obligate to implement law legislation. In addition, they facilitate a student coalition as [a means of] groundbreaking local activism to combat human trafficking in the next generation.

On watching her girls grow up

My work means so much to me because I watch these children get their childhood back: especially when I see them going to school. Thousands of women have been reintegrated with sustainable livelihoods; some of them have gotten married and now have their own families. I cannot tell you what these stories mean to me. In addition to two girls who are now university students, there are three more girls who have just taken their high school diploma exam in the last couple days. After all they have been through in their lives, they are going to have a degree in the near future.

On Sina Vann, her right-hand woman and the Voices of Change co-director

Sina is a survivor, trafficked when she was 12 years old from Vietnam to Cambodia. She was drugged and locked up, and for many years was forced to take 20 clients a day — if she refused she was beaten. When she came to us, she hated all Cambodians because of what had been done to her. My staff said we could not take her — she was too much a fighter, too violent and unpredictable. She didn’t speak Khmer, I didn’t speak Vietnamese, but I took her hands in mine and looked her in the eye. I was careful and loving with her, and soon we understood one another. Sina stayed with us — she did not leave! — and as she recovered in the center, she learned Khmer and English and began to show leadership qualities. Now she works in the field every day doing outreach and advocacy, visiting the centers, inspiring the younger girls, and traveling to speaking engagements and conferences.

Who influences you?

Mainly my girls influence me. I see them recovering, going to school and having hope. Secondly, my team’s work: they work so hard to support victims and survivors. Thirdly, my team of Voices for Change survivors; they stand up and advocate for those whose voices are not being heard. And all the supporters around the world influence me too. Without them, none of our achievements could have happened.