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“Girls don’t choose prostitution; they are forced into it”

Somaly Mam founded AFESIP (Agir Pour les Femmes en Situation Précaire- Acting for Women in Distressing Situations) in 1996. Since 1997 she has been the chairperson of ECPAT (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes). In 1998 she received the Prince of Asturias Award for International Cooperation along with Rigoberta Menchú, Graça Machel-Mandela, Fatija Budiaf, Fatana Ishaq Gailani, Olayinka Koso-Thomas and Emma Bonino. She was elected President of the ASEAN Confederation of Women’s Organizations in 1999. In 2007, the inspired leadership and vision of this Cambodian activist led to the creation of the Somaly Mam Foundation.

Life shows us every day that, while some experiences are life altering, it is the way in which each individual chooses to respond to events, rather than the events themselves, which decide a person’s fate. Sometimes we must go through experiences that, from an objective standpoint, we would prefer not to, but which, with the perspective of hindsight, seem to have activated a will capable of moving mountains. It is possible that some people who suffer or have suffered harm are unable break the chain of hatred, but this is not the option that Somaly Mam has chosen.

“Remembering my personal story is too painful; I prefer to talk about the future and not the past.” In her words, there is no room for self-pity. She prefers to  raise awareness so that the fate of the girls and boys who suffer sexual exploitation in the 21st century can be changed.

The figures are shocking. More than two million girls around the world are forced to work as prostitutes every day. Sexual exploitation and human trafficking are the slavery of our times, a criminal business whose profits are only slightly less than those earned by the drug and arms trade. This is an unacceptable truth that calls into question the very foundations of our society, since, as Somaly points out, “girls don’t choose prostitution, they are forced into it.”

Somaly Mam grew up in the “Democratic Kampuchea,” years of the extremist Mao government of Pol Pot. Nearly two million Cambodians died during this time, victims of the repression of the Khmer Rouge forces between 1975 and 1979, in what is known as the Cambodian genocide. In these years, survival rates for Cambodians and, women and children in particular, drastically deteriorated.
Somaly, like many other girls, was sold into slavery on a number of occasions and was forced to work as a prostitute to survive. Some of her peers were killed for not complying with their pimps’ demands and, it was from this dark place, that she found the will to break free of a fate that had seemed like the only one possible.

When Somaly was 21, she met a French relief worker, her current partner, who helped her to escape from this situation. She found work as a midwife in a Cambodian hospital until she moved to France, where she lived for two years. She had managed to distance herself from her past, but it wasn’t enough; she couldn’t forget the fate of so many other exploited women and girls, still vividly recalled the bitter taste of injustice. She found social work to be a rewarding vocation, and it allowed her to return to her country with Doctors without Borders in 1995, on an HIV/AIDS prevention mission, targeting high risk populations in Cambodia.

In 1996, she founded the AFESIP association (Agir Pour les Femmes en Situation Précaire- Acting for Women in Distressing Situations), through which she works tirelessly to improve the lives and working conditions of girls and young people who suffer from sexual exploitation. Among other activities, the AFESIP social workers routinely visit brothels in Phnom Phenn to ensure that there are no minors. In this way, they seek to access women and girls forced into prostitution to “show them that they have the right to leave”.

“The best thing that has happened to me in life? The girls’ smiles after being through hell”, says Somaly about the significance of her work and the importance of healing wounds. In Cambodia, AFESIP has rescued more than 4000 women from sexual slavery, it has distributed more than 450,000 condoms to stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, and close to 27,000 men from the police force and military, students and others have attended sessions on STI prevention. 150 social workers are employed by the organization to carry out these activities in Cambodia and the neighbouring countries of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.

Her work reporting sexual crimes and rescuing women has meant that Somaly, her family and the organization have been on the receiving end of multiple threats and acts of aggression by mafia networks that are both powerful and corrupt. These criminal groups have even attacked the centres,, kidnapping the women, as if they were ‘loot’ and their own private property. Some of the girls rescued by Somaly were scarcely five and six years old. The story of a young girl named Tomdy helps us to understand the brutality of their lives. As Somaly recalls, “When Tomdy contracted AIDS and tuberculosis, and was no longer useful, her pimp abandoned her on the streets. I rescued her when she was 11 and took her home with me. She was extremely ill, and only lived for four years. I loved her very much and I used to sit her on my lap and hug her. ‘Why do I have to die now, now that I have a mother and I can go to school? Tell me Somaly, why doesn’t God help me?’ she used to ask me”.

In a country where nearly 40% of the population lives in poverty, the AFESIP centres have made the rehabilitation and reintegration of women the measure of their project’s success.  They offer women a comprehensive education for up to three years, starting with reading, writing and arithmatic. They complete their training in hairdressing, tailoring, manufacturing and English language instruction, so they will have a trade that will allow them to set up their own businesses in their home communities. However, the reinsertion of girls who have been prostituted is “extremely difficult; we are lucky if their families accept them and if not, we take them somewhere else where their past is not known,” explains Somaly.

Since 1997, Somaly has been the chairperson of the organization to eradicate prostitution and child trafficking, ECPAT, and she is the co-founder of the Somaly Mam Foundation, which, since 2007, has been committed to ending human trafficking through social awareness, the initiation of campaigns and direct action, and whose primary beneficiary is AFESIP.

Confronting this sordid and tenacious mafia power has earned her international recognition and continued death threats in her country, but her will never wavers. “I’ve committed my life to fighting this terrible scourge on humanity. Seeing innocent young women and children whose lives have been scarred forever leaves no doubt in my mind that they need an advocate, someone who is willing to invest all their time and energy in eradicating the shameful practice of human trafficking.”