When Somaly Mam was on the brink of adolescence, her grandfather sold her into the sex trade in Cambodia. Today, Mam is a published author and advocate for victims of a global human trafficking industry that sells nearly a million people into slavery each year.
Mam recounted her unlikely life journey at “Speak Truth to Power,” an event on Tuesday, Sept. 8, sponsored by the Graduate School of Social Service (GSS) and Fordham School of Law.
Addressing an audience of 150, Mam painfully recalled the decade she spent in a brothel, forced into prostitution where virgins were at a premium and captives became younger and younger—as young as five years old.
She recalled “having to close our eyes, and accept 20 to 30 men per day” or else face being beaten by their captors. On three occasions, Mam said, she tried to commit suicide.
After she witnessed her best friend’s murder at the hands of a client, Mam escaped the sex trade with the help of a French aid worker.
“I know how to react under fear, but talking here is not easy for me,” said Mam, author of The Road of Lost Innocence: The Story of a Cambodian Heroine (Spiegel & Grau, 2008). “I don’t know my age, my real name or my family, but I thank every one of you who has helped me to understand what love means. Now I have my mission, to save others from the brothel and to help them find a new life, to give them love.”
In addition to being an author, Mam is co-founder and president of Acting for Women in Distressing Situations, an organization that operates three shelters in Cambodia for more than 300 young girls who have escaped the forced sex-trade. Since most of the girls are between five and 12 years old, Mam has opened schools at the sites. To date, AFESIP has rescued 4,000 children from sex trafficking, she said.
Mam delivered an impassioned plea for support against a global human trafficking market that generates $9.5 billion annually, $4 billion of which goes to the prostitution industry. She also urged the audience to contact United States senators who do not support the reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) passed by the House of Representatives earlier this year to strengthen penalties for trafficking.
“I can go to a brothel and save a victim, or 20 victims, but the next day they will be replaced,” Mam said. “I cannot stop organized crime, but you can. They are still raping every day. So please, talking is great but more reacting is needed.”
Joining Mam was William Livermore, director of customer contact at LexisNexis, a political and financial supporter of Mam’s organizations. Livermore noted that there are 11 states within the U.S. that do not have anti-trafficking legislation on their state books.
“Trafficking is a problem that is bigger than the sub-Mekong delta,” he said. “It is here in New York, Boston . . . so even in the United States, there is work to do.”
The event was co-sponsored by GSS, Fordham Law School’s Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, LexisNexis, Priority Films and Redlight Children, a non-governmental organization fighting child sexploitation.