If ever there was a story about triumphant survival, it is the story of Somaly Mam. Born into extreme poverty in Cambodia, Somaly was sold into sex slave trade at the tender age of 12. She and many other girls were raped every day at the brothel where they were imprisoned.
But it was the night she witnessed her best friend’s murder that pushed Somaly to flee. From that day on, Somaly vowed she would never forget those left behind and would find a way to change lives.
After all that she’d been through, how could she find the strength to carry on? Somaly answered, pointing to the children at one of her rescue centers, “From them – from all these kids. Without them, maybe I can’t survive.”
Inspired by her work, John Walsh and America’s Most Wanted traveled to Cambodia in October 2010 to meet Somaly and just some of the children she’s rescued from sex slavery. John wanted to put the spotlight on the country and Somaly’s important work, because Western pedophiles often travel to Cambodia to pursue their sick desires.
“I look at these children and say, ‘who could hurt a child? Who could hurt these children?’” John says. “But when they do, they need to be caught, and they need to be punished. They need to pay for what they did.”
In 1996, Somaly created AFESIP, a non-governmental Cambodian organization dedicated to helping girls and women get out of the same situation she was once in. AFESIP stands for Agir Pour les Femmes en Situation Precaire. Then with the help of two U.S. Air Force Academy graduates, Jared Greenberg and Nicholas Lumpp, the Somaly Mam Foundation was created in 2007.
“We have to accept what they’ve been through – what we’ve been through,” Somaly says. “We don’t want it to happen to another.”
Somaly oversees three rescue centers in Cambodia: Siem Reap, Kompong Cham Center and Tom Dy Center. The centers not only provide a safe haven for victims, but they also prepare young women for their new lives. According to Somaly’s website, they work with victims after their recovery to make sure they can go on to live successful, independent lives. The children participate in educational and vocational programs so they can become self-sufficient.
“These girls have been through many things,” Somaly says. “They need to eat. They need to learn and to go to school.”
But her role as an advocate comes at a price: Somaly and her family have received death threats and fear violent retaliation. Despite this, Somaly has no intention to stop her work.
“The first night that I had been raped, I needed to hold a mother – I want to talk to her [about] my story. I can’t,” Somaly says. “That’s why I want to be the mother of these girls. I want to hear them; I want them to talk to me. That is my job now.”
John and the AMW crew left Cambodia more determined than ever to help the millions of women and children in sex slavery.
“We live in a global community, and the sex traffickers so anywhere,” John says. “They don’t care about borders – they don’t care about laws.”