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UN.GIFT interview with activist Somaly Mam

Born to a tribal minority family in the Mondulkiri province of Cambodia, Somaly Mam began life in extreme poverty. Her family often resorted to desperate means to survive, and their situation only deteriorated during the long civil war that devastated the country in the early '70s. When she was young, Somaly was sold into slavery by a man who posed as her grandfather; she endured years of sexual exploitation and rape.


Today she is an outspoken activist in the fight to end human trafficking. UN.GIFT sat down with Somaly to discuss her foundation and work with victims, future projects, and the challenges that persist in ensuring that children no longer suffer the way she did.



UN.GIFT: Can you tell us a bit about the primary aims and goals of the Somaly Mam Foundation?


SM: The Somaly Mam Foundation is working to create a world where women and children are free from slavery. We established the Foundation with the goal of providing three specific functions:


To support victim services. SMF provides financial and in-kind support to our partner organizations who work directly with survivors of human trafficking and who take a holistic approach to rescue, recovery, and reintegration


To eradicate slavery. We work on global advocacy campaigns and lobbying efforts, leverage celebrity voices, and mobilise grassroots level activism, all with the goal of raising mainstream awareness and influencing decision makers to end slavery


To empower survivors. Our Voices For Change program recognises the strength of survivors, giving them a platform for their voices to be heard and influence positive change. They help themselves through helping others, providing powerful mentorship to women undergoing rehabilitation or even those still within the sex industry. Additionally, SMF provides scholarships to survivors wishing to pursue higher education.


UN.GIFT: You were sold into sexual slavery by a man posing as your grandfather. How is the Somaly Mam Foundation working in order to prevent people from enduring the same fate?


SM: Our Advocacy Team in Cambodia works to educate the population about the issue of human trafficking, including how to take steps to protect yourself, how to recognise warning signs, and how you might be able to seek help if you are trafficked. We target communities deemed as being at high risk through workshops and seminars, and our staff also host a regular program on local Cambodian radio. We have recently established a network of students around Cambodia who we continue to train and support in raising awareness within their own communities. Alongside this, we have created a network of local authorities with whom we work closely to help them recognise cases of human trafficking and sexual exploitation and appropriately deal with perpetrators.


Tackling the demand side of the issue is also essential, and we have held seminars with universities, communities, and with local authorities about the sex industry and women's rights.



UN.GIFT: What inspired you to start the Somaly Mam Foundation?


SM: After establishing AFESIP Cambodia in 1996, then going on to help set up victim services programs in Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos, my goal was to see this great work supported through a sustainable fundraising vehicle. Additionally, I wanted to create a global stage for the voices of victims and survivors to be heard, to empower these brave women to be part of the solution to ending trafficking and sexual exploitation.


UN.GIFT: Have you ever returned home?


SM: Mondulkiri province and my home village still hold a special place in my heart. I feel a sense of peace amongst nature, and it is nice to return from time to time to the familiar smells, tastes and language of my early childhood.


UN.GIFT: You've received a lot of attention for your work as an advocate of victims and an activist in the fight to end human trafficking. How has being in the spotlight and having your very personal story so widely known effected your work as an activist?


SM: I think you cannot help but be affected by such experiences. I have come to learn that the power of personal stories is that they can touch people deeply, with the potential to evoke great passion, dedication, and commitment to a cause. I never cease to be inspired and encouraged by such reactions to my story, and this gives me further strength to continue sharing my painful past. Sharing can bring about human connection, understanding, acceptance, and motivation for change. As an activist, to be able to foster love and positive action for those in need is a dream come true. I often say that "life is love," a meaningful life must contain love, and in order to love we must share our lives, our stories, our hearts.



UN.GIFT: Do you see the increased awareness that human trafficking has gotten in recent years making a tangible difference on the ground?


SM: Absolutely. When I began this work in the 1990s, people in Cambodia simply did not believe that such horrors occurred. Even until more recent years, they did not believe that children in brothels were being infected with HIV. As more and more people - both globally and locally - begin to understand the issues and the actual situation, we see impact by way of funding and donations for victim services, an ability to better engage the community in prevention strategies, and a society that can recognise and assist those in need. There is still a long way to go, but knowledge is always the first step.


International government support, such as the US State Department's G/TIP program and their annual TIP Report, puts meaningful pressure on countries which are not adequately addressing issues of trafficking, and over time we begin see tangible difference in terms of the introduction of national strategies to combat trafficking, introduction and strengthening of national policy, and improved law enforcement.


UN.GIFT: What are the biggest challenges in the fight against human trafficking today?


SM: In Cambodia, poverty is still a key push factor into trafficking. There are families who see no other options for improving their economic situation than to sell a daughter so that their other children can be fed. Programs which focus on improving livelihoods and economic management are essential in Cambodia.


The value of the girl child and woman is still low in Cambodia too. Recognising their potential, their strength and their agency by investing in their education and empowering women socially and politically at all levels of society is key to not only curbing the supply of women and girls who are vulnerable to trafficking, but also in creating a society which respects and values all women. Our challenge is to create a cultural shift whereby the purchase of sexual services - especially of women held against their will or underage girls - is no longer socially acceptable amongst Cambodian men, and where women who have been exploited are no longer stigmatised.


In a country with such recent history of war and genocide, a large percentage of the population has lived through significant trauma. Coping mechanisms can often include alcoholism and drug abuse, gambling, and violence. There is little understanding of issues of child rights or protection, and domestic violence is widespread. When such behaviours are passed down through the generations, it is difficult to break the cycle. The women we work with have often experienced complex situations of abuse and instability even before the event of trafficking took place.


Another knock-on effect of the Khmer Rouge genocide is that 50% of Cambodia's population today is under 25 years old. With more and more young people looking to enter the labour market each year, there simply aren't enough jobs for everyone. This can lead people to migrate unsafely in search of work and or naively accept job offers without looking into the facts properly. This is a huge challenge both for the economic future of Cambodia as a whole, as well as the anti-trafficking community.


Finally, law enforcement is still weak in Cambodia. We need to continue to improve and strengthen governance at national and local levels.


UN.GIFT: Can you tell us about some of the projects you're most proud of?


SM: My center for child survivors in Kampong Cham Province in Cambodia is very close to my heart. The center is home to 73 girls, and although I live in Phnom Penh, I still see it as an extension of my own home. They are my children and I am proud to be their mother. Last year, we had our first resident graduate high school and she is now sitting for her exams at the end of her first year of Law School in Phnom Penh. Another young woman has just received her Grade 12 results and will begin her studies in Medicine this year. I cannot express how proud I am of these girls. I myself am not educated, but my "daughters" will be the leaders of the next generation.



UN.GIFT: Do you have any upcoming projects or events that you'd like to highlight?


SM: The Somaly Mam Foundation's annual fundraising Gala will take place in New York City on 17 October. Tickets will be on sale soon via We would love the support of anyone interested in attending!


We are also fundraising to build a new house for the children at Somaly House, as their current dormitory leaks during the rainy season months and does not provide any privacy with all 73 girls sharing one room. This new home will be a beautifully designed, welcoming, and peaceful space to help the children recover from their trauma in a healing environment.


I am currently working with AFESIP Cambodia and a key sponsor to open a new social enterprise which will provide high level training and sustainable employment for survivors in beauty and hairdressing. Look out for Somaly Salon when visiting Siem Reap from 2013!


We're also hoping to encourage the role of survivors in the Greater Mekong networks of anti-trafficking organizations, leveraging their voices within regional strategies to combat trafficking and sexual exploitation.


UN.GIFT: What other organizations do you work with or admire?


SM: AFESIP Cambodia is part of the ECPAT (End Child Prostitution, Abuse and Trafficking) network which is a coalition of 25 member organizations, including Friends International and World Vision.


AFESIP and SMF both work with the UNIAP as part of its stakeholder network, and also by accessing training opportunities for our staff and survivors. One of our Kampong Cham residents was also recently selected to represent Cambodia at the first UNiTE Global Youth Forum to End Violence Against Women.


I have great admiration for the other strong women leaders who were working hard alongside me in the 1990s to defend the rights of women in Cambodia, especially the founders of Cambodian Women's Crisis Center (CWCC) and Project Against Domestic Violence (PADV). I have been very grateful for their support over the years.


We partner with numerous other local organizations on the ground to exchange information and resources.


UN.GIFT: How can people get involved in your organization or in the fight against human trafficking?


SM: One person can't do everything but all of us can do one thing to change the world.


- Follow: Find SMF on Facebook and Somaly on Twitter and follow us. Learn more about what we do by going to our website and reading about our programs. Stay updated on latest developments.


- Share: Educate your family and friends. Share news articles and stories. Tell them about our work, so they can never again say they did not know about sex slavery. If you are in circles of influence, put pressure on people with power to take action. Pressure governments and policy-makers, encourage prosecution of johns and traffickers. Help to change mindsets: look at women and girls as victims and survivors of exploitation and not as prostitutes, and ensure that the rights of the victims and the voices of the survivors are top priority. Read my book, The Road of Lost Innocence, and pass it on.


- Get active: Join our worldwide network of grassroots level activists, Project Futures Global. We can support you in running your own innovative events and campaigns in your community to raise awareness and end trafficking.


- Support: We cannot do this work without financial support. Our team is very good, hardworking, and very dedicated, but the shelters need more resources. They need food and water. Programs need supplies, and we must lay the groundwork for survivor-led solution with training, support, and patience. We have a plan, and we know how we want to get there, but are limited by funding as times are tight. We need your help.