A native Cambodian, Somaly Mam’s family struggled through poverty and limited opportunities during her childhood. Because of this, Somaly was sold into a life of sexual slavery many times by a man who posed as her “grandfather.” At a very young age, she was forced to work in a brothel with many other young girls and they were all treated horrifically through torture, manipulation, and scare tactics. One night she witnessed the murder of a close friend by a pimp. At this moment, Somaly realized that she was trapped in a dangerous and desperate world. She made it her mission to escape and later find a way to stop this vicious cycle.
Her past fuels her passion to help young children and women who are victims of human trafficking. Beaten, raped, and tortured as a child, at the age of 30 she became a spokeswoman for women and children tortured in the brothels of Cambodia. She and her ex-husband Pierre Legros created the organization AFESIP (Agir pour les Femmes en Situation Précaire / “Acting for Women in Distressing Circumstances”) in 1997 in Cambodia.
Since its founding, Somaly’s international NGO has expanded to Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. This organization’s mission is the rescue, rehabilitation, and reintegration of girls forced into prostitution. Despite continuous threats against her and her family, Somaly Mam has been able to help thousands of young girls and teenagers who have been coerced into prostitution.
Somaly’s work has brought her enormous international attention, including recognition as a CNN Hero and appearances on television specials featured on CBC, CBS, NBC and MSNBC. In 2006, Somaly Mam was honored as Glamour magazine’s Woman of the Year for her courageous work in fighting sexual slavery. This same year, Somaly was also chosen as one of eight female heroines to serve as a flag bearer for the Torino 2006 Winter Olympic Games.
In 2007 Somaly created the US based Somaly Mam Foundation. The following year, Mam was awarded the World’s Children’s Prize for the Rights of the Child in Sweden for her “dangerous struggle” to defend the rights of children in Cambodia.