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Cambodian Anti-Prostitution Activist Wins Human Rights Award

A survivor of child slavery and prostitution, Somaly Mam battles forced prostitution in her native Cambodia. For helping to better the world for others like her, Mam received the Roland Berger Human Dignity Award Monday.

Smiling middle-aged woman holding a child in front of a rice patty

Somaly Mam hopes her work will help make other victims happy

“Myself acquainted with misfortune, I learn to help the unfortunate” -- so said the poet Virgil over 2000 years ago. The saying, however, is one that could have come from the mouth of Somaly Mam, a Cambodian woman who lived through slavery and prostitution as a child and faced every conceivable form of violence.

Having escaped that misfortune, Mam now uses her horrendous life experience to help fight for the rights of other young women who have been in her situation. Twelve years ago, she founded an NGO for women and children who were used as sex slaves called AFESIP, or Acting for Women in Distressing Situations.

On Monday, November 24, German President Horst Koehler recognized Mam's work by presenting her with the Roland Berger Human Dignity Award. The award, intended for those who work in the field of human rights and financed by the Roland Berger Foundation, is endowed with a million euros. This is the first year the prize has been awarded.

Childhood over at ten

Born around 38 years ago to parents she would never know, Mam was raised by foster parents in the eastern Cambodian province of Mondolkiri. At the age of 10, she moved in with an older man whom she referred to as “Grandpa” and began her work as a domestic slave to the attentive man. Her childhood ended then; running the home became her most important duty.

Couple driving on a motorobike while woman passenger handles an infant

Mam says Cambodian women and children have no say in their lives

Four or five years later, Mam was handed over by “Grandpa” to a man twelve years her senior, forced to marry to settle an outstanding debt. That her grandfather had made such a decision about her life, her body and her destiny is something she didn't question.

“In Cambodia, women don't have the right to say no,” she said. “Women and children must sacrifice their entire life to the family.”

Her husband disappeared shortly after their marriage and “Grandpa” then brought her to a bordello in the Cambodian capitol of Phnom Penh.

“I thought I owed him something. He fed me so I thought I had to be thankful and do everything for him.”

Trust fell by the wayside

The years following saw Mam held as a sex slave. In those years, violence, malnutrition, abuse and drugs intertwined. Attempts at escape were always hindered.

Schoolroom in Cambodia with 6-7 year old students writing in notebooks

Literacy is one area AFESIP focuses on

“My pimp would catch me and barricade me in a cage with snakes,” Mam recalls.

The memory floods the beautiful woman's brown eyes with tears when she relates it even today. Still, she speaks and writes about her experiences often. Her memoir, “The Road of Lost Innocence” was published two years ago.

"I can smile and speak today, but deep in my heart, I don't feel as normal as you,” she told guests at the book's launch party. “I don't know how to love another person. I don't know how to trust anyone.”

Mam has, however, learned to trust at least one man: Pierre Legros, a Frenchman she met in Cambodia who helped her to flee from the brothel. She went with him to France, married him and later returned with him to Cambodia, where she founded AFESIP.

The organization and its workers, with support from UNICEF, have thus far freed a thousand women and children from forced prostitution. AFESIP helps them to win back their self-confidence, to re-enter the community, to read and write and later, to train for future careers.

Street scene of red light district in Phnom Penh

Cambodia's red light district attracts sex toursists from around the world

Every time Mam helps a young girl, she is faced once again with her own fortune and sees the pain and suffering in them reflecting back at her like a mirror. It's an immense burden but also an advantage, Mam believes.

“If I hadn't had the experiences that I'd had, I couldn't have been able to help these young girls so well.”

Threats an everyday experience

The necessity of Mam's work is clearly shown when one looks at the horrific statistics concerning sex slavery in Cambodia. A UN report estimates that 50,000 women and young girls are victims of sexual violence every day. Ninety percent of children freed from brothels have tested positive for HIV. The country ranks as a top destination for sex tourists, which supports a continuation of forced slavery and human trafficking.

Still, not everyone agrees with Mam's work. She's publicly attacked politicians and businessmen in her homeland for their involvement in corruption and prostitution. Threats of murder and verbal attacks at the “whistleblower” are an everyday part of life for Mam, as are muggings and kidnappings. But she won't let that stop her.

“Every day, when I see these victims, these women who have been abused, who have so much pain, I know I simply can't turn my back on them. I have to fight with all my power. I will never give up. Never.”

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