Sex Slavery Survivor Gives Others Hope
For Somaly Mam, laughter is as strong a weapon in her fight against human trafficking and sexual slavery as her own harrowing tale.
Born into extreme poverty in Cambodia and forced at age 12 to work as a sex slave, Mam has refused to let her horrifying past sour her present, and made it her mission to reach out to young women and girls broken by similar plights.
"Life, you have to laugh," she said Friday after recounting her story to DePaul students and faculty at the school's Lincoln Park campus.
Mam, who will make a commencement speech Saturday at DePaul's School for New Learning, heads an international organization based in Cambodia dedicated to rescuing women held as sex slaves across Southeast Asia. She's also the president of the Somaly Mam Foundation, which raises money to fund her efforts.
Mam claims to have saved about 4,000 young women and girls since starting her agency in 1996. Her work has the attention of actresses Susan Sarandon and Angelina Jolie, and last year, she was named one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People.
Mam travels the world telling of how a man claiming to be her grandfather sold her to a brothel, where she was sexually brutalized every day for a decade. She was robbed of her hope and left with only shame, she said.
"I always try to empower the victims, to tell them don't be ashamed, don't feel guilty, don't feel dirty," she said. "I try to make them (realize) it's not your life, you didn't want it, it's not your fault, it is society's fault."
Perhaps more traumatic than the rapes was seeing her best friend murdered by a pimp, an event that spurred her to run away.
"The story of my friend is like, she (made) me survive. If you want to (ask) who is my hero, it's her," Mam said. "If you ask me why I'm here, it's because of her. She died. She made me run away, and I'm here and I saved a lot of girls. She's my best memory."
Though she's told her story hundreds, perhaps thousands of times, and has also written a book about it, she said she's cutting back because of how much it drains her.
"Now sometimes it's hard," she said. "When every day I talk about that, it's hard for me. I can talk one time a day, it's OK. But if you make me (talk) 10 times a day about the same thing, you (would) kill me."
Part of Mam's mission is stressing to first-world nations like the United States that trafficking and slavery can happen anywhere.
"Everywhere, every family can have this, if you're not careful. And even sometimes if you're careful, it can happen. So this cause is not one for one people, it's (a) cause for everyone," she said.
An unexpected moment occurred in a question-and-answer portion of Mam's appearance when a 58-year-old woman stood and told the 130-person audience how, as a teenager, she was forced into sexual slavery.
The woman's tearful story earned a round of applause as she and Mam embraced and later posed for photos afterward.
Mam said she often hears such stories — sometimes all it takes is eye contact with a woman in the audience.
"I stop to talk about my life and sometimes I look at the people and I feel that they are also victims," she said. Touching her heart, she added "I feel it here."
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By William Lee
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