Growing up in extreme poverty under the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, Mam was sold into sexual slavery when she was 12, eventually ending up in a Phnom Penh brothel where she endured unimaginable daily torture and rape. After being made to watch as another girl, her best friend, was murdered, Mam escaped and was helped out of Cambodia by a French aid worker.
Instead of trying to rebuild her life in France, where she married, Mam returned to Cambodia to help girls who hadn’t been so lucky. In 1996, she set up her organization Afesip (Action for Women in Distressing Situations), to rescue girls and women from brothels and support their recovery. She has already helped more than 4,000 women and children, some as young as five, escape sexual slavery in south-east Asia and in 2007 set up the Somaly Mam Foundation, to raise awareness, campaign for change and fund projects to rescue and rehabilitate women and children sold into slavery.
Mam’s work has come at a terrible personal cost. Her life has been threatened by pimps and brothel owners, and in 2006, her then 14-year-old daughter was kidnapped and raped by three men, as retaliation for the work her mother does. In an interview in 2005 , Mam admitted to periods of desperation, including more than one suicide attempt. But in more recent years, asked why she continues to fight, she has always responded, “I don’t want to go without leaving a trace.”