Born to a tribal minority family in the Mondulkiri province of Cambodia, Somaly Mam began life in extreme poverty. With limited options as a severely marginalized ethnic group, and living in unimaginable despair, her family often resorted to desperate means to survive. This confluence of dire circumstances led to Somaly being sold into sexual slavery by a man who posed as her grandfather. To this day, due to the passing of time and the unreliability of a wounded memory, Somaly still does not know who this man was to her.
Yet his actions set her on an unimaginable path fraught with danger, desperation, and ultimately triumph. Somaly was forced to work in a brothel along with other women and children for many years, and was brutally tortured and raped. One night, she was made to watch as her best friend was viciously murdered. Deciding then that she would no longer “keep her silence,” Somaly heroically escaped her captors and began to build a new life abroad.
But she vowed never to forget those she left behind, and soon returned to Southeast Asia. She dedicated her life’s work to saving victims, building shelters and programs for healing, and empowering survivors to become agents of change. In 1996, Somaly established a Cambodian non-governmental organization called AFESIP (Agir Pour les Femmes en Situation Precaire).
Under Somaly's leadership, AFESIP employs a holistic approach that ensures victims not only escape their plight, but have the emotional and economic strength to face the future with hope. With the launch of the Somaly Mam Foundation in 2007, Somaly has established a funding vehicle to support anti-trafficking organizations and to provide victims and survivors with a platform from which their voices can be heard around the world. Somaly estimates that she and her team have assisted over 7,000 victims to date.