An Interview with the Somaly Mam Foundation

the-somaly-mam-foundationOn January 11, 2013, Sharnoff’s Global Views concluded an interview with Amy Merrill, director of marketing and development at the Somaly Mam Foundation. Somaly Mam is a survivor of sex slavery and a leader in the fight to end it.

Born into a tribal minority family in Cambodia and sold at a young age, she endured many years of exploitation and abuse. But she escaped, and vowed never to forget those she left behind.

For nearly twenty years, Somaly has dedicated her life to saving victims, running shelters for recovery and skills training, and empowering survivors to build independent lives of dignity. Her holistic approach ensures these women and children not only escape their plight for good, but have the emotional and economic strength to face the future with hope.

SGV: Can you tell us a bit about the Somaly Mam Foundation and its founder?

AM: The Somaly Mam Foundation is committed to building a world in which women and children are free from slavery. Human trafficking, a multi-billion dollar industry, is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world, with an estimated two million women and children sold into sex slavery each year. This is more than a women’s issue: this is a global crisis, and it must end.

In 2007, with the help of two Americans, Somaly founded the Somaly Mam Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting victim services and the holistic approach of Somaly and her team, as well as driving prevention efforts and anti-trafficking advocacy in Southeast Asia. The Foundation also empowers survivors as leaders of next-generation change, and engages governments, corporations, and individuals in the fight to end slavery worldwide.

SGV: Unfortunately, Somaly’s story is not uncommon for other women in Southeast Asia. However her ability to escape, persevere and share her struggle with the international community is nothing short of a miracle. How has she managed to overcome the psychological and physical abuse and channel her passion into humanitarian work?

AM: Somaly often says that she does not save the girls – the girls save her. Her work is primarily in the field, visiting the brothels and karaoke bars with the social work team and peer educators, and spending time in the shelters with the women and girls who are receiving recovery services, training and education.

She is fueled by love: the endless love she receives from the beautiful children and young women she’s helped, and the love she can give to women who are still entrapped or exploited – she feels their pain so deeply, as she was once one of them. Above all of this, there is no doubt that Somaly is an exceptional human being, and a stunning combination of strength and bravery, passion and compassion, and wisdom.

From Somaly:

From my girls I learned to trust and love without condition.  I learned from them about real love. When you hear that they have been raped or trafficked, you must think that they are so sad and hopeless. In contrast, in the center, they laugh a lot and look so happy. They hug, give kisses with true love.

SGV: What risks has Somaly faced by openly challenging the brothels and slave traffickers?

AM: From what I know, she’s faced it all – threats to her life, physical violence, a weapon held to her head, and stalkers. She travels with a bodyguard in Southeast Asia, and she takes other precautions to protect her privacy and outsmart the traffickers.

SGV: How long has Southeast Asia experienced human trafficking and sexual exploitation and what are the local authorities doing to prevent it?

AM: In 2008 and 2009, two laws were passed: the Cambodian Law on Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation, 2008, and the Cambodian Minimum Standards for Protection of the Rights of Victims of Human Trafficking in 2009. These laid important groundwork in addressing and preventing human trafficking, and for rehabilitating and repatriating its victims. According to this research, human trafficking has been widespread since 1990, and the trade proliferated in the wake of the Khmer Rouge.

The anti-trafficking police and the government are supportive of Somaly’s work. The anti-trafficking police work closely with her team on every rescue operation and brothel raid. The prime minister and his wife now attend annual Anti-Trafficking Day, sponsored by the foundation and its Cambodian partner NGO. Since 2009, annual Anti-Trafficking Day events have raised awareness, fostered change, and promoted prevention efforts and dialogue.

Anti-Trafficking Day is sponsored by the Somaly Mam Foundation and AFESIP Cambodia, in conjunction with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the Ministry of the Interior. The event unites various anti-trafficking stakeholders on the ground and provides a platform to engage government officials, the local community, and the victims and survivors of human trafficking in conversation.

Since the event’s inception, we have witnessed major milestones: at the first Anti-Trafficking Day in 2009, the attendance of Deputy Prime Minister Men SamAn highlighted the progress that had been made at the government level in recognizing the issue of human trafficking in Cambodia. In 2011, the government awarded Somaly with the prestigious Mony Saraphorn award, an honor awarded to citizens whose work has made significant contributions to Cambodian society.

The over 4,000 participants in 2011 included students, police, military police, local authorities, teachers, journalists, NGOs, and activists. Honored guests included Deputy Prime Minister Her Excellency Mrs. Man Sam On, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs Minister Her Excellency Mrs. Ing Kainthapavy, a representative from Phnom Penh Hall His Excellency Moeun Samat, and American actress and activist Susan Sarandon.

Voices For Change leaders lead training sessions for law enforcement agents, government officials, and community members to recognize and properly address cases of human trafficking, in an ongoing partnership with the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP). They focus on existing anti-trafficking laws and the need for compliance with rule of law, as well as the underlying conditions that lead to trafficking and the particular needs of victims.

However, corruption persists in Cambodia, and in many areas law enforcement is still weak. There exists a need to continue to improve and strengthen governance and policy at national and local levels. The rights of the victims can be better-protected, and the role and responsibility of the client targeted.

SGV: What types of programs have you organized do help create awareness and end human trafficking and sexual slavery?

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AM: A few examples of our work to raise awareness includes:

  • Anti-Trafficking Day. Now in its fourth year, this event brings together government officials, students, NGO’s, writers and journalists, and the victims themselves to address the issue of human trafficking in public dialogue and discuss solutions in place (and ideas for the future).
  • Tuk-Tuk Ad Campaign: This past year, SMF installed advertisements on the backs of 12 tuk-tuk moto-taxis in Phnom Penh, which held messages around child protection, women’s rights, and the legal implications of trafficking and abuse. The messages were in both Khmer and English, and included the foundation’s contact information.
  • Student Advocacy Group: our team in Cambodia is organizing a group of students who stand up for the rights of victims and call for the end of trafficking and slavery. They participate in local advocacy campaigns and they gave a presentation in recent Anti-Trafficking Day.
  • UNIAP trainings: our Voices For Change leaders, survivors ages 20-30 who are training to be next-generation advocates and activists, lead trainings for police officials and judges to better recognize and address cases of trafficking in their own police work. A testimonial from a young woman who has suffered these abuses can serve as a powerful message to individuals who have dedicated their life to public service and protection.
  • From SMF’s New York offices, we run campaigns and employ social media daily to educate and inspire our supporters. Our celebrity supporters help us to reach a broader support base with the facts about trafficking and a call to action.
  • Our annual gala and seasonal Cocktails for a Cause events help to build community in the anti-trafficking movement and raise funds to support programs and projects.
  • Targeted campaigns like our recent t-shirt blitz on helped our supporters to do good with their shopping dollars.
  • We have partnered with companies like The Body Shop, Hilton Worldwide, and entities like NYC Office of the Mayor and UNIAP (UN Inter Agency Project to combat trafficking) to champion the rights of victims and the prosecution of traffickers and “johns.” The Body Shop’s Petition to End the Sex Trafficking of Women and Children secured over 700,000 signatures in the United States and seven million worldwide.

SGV: What challenges and opportunities exist for safeguarding women’s rights in the 21st Century?

AM: Challenges include:

  • Ongoing economic inequality & extreme poverty
  • stereotypes, bias, stigma, and social norms – all ways that women and girls are devalued
  • equal access to education
  • rule of law: stricter enforcement and global accountability


  • Increasing information in mass media and online on the issue of modern slavery
  • Movements like the Half the Sky transmedia project and 10×10 Documentary
  • Data that proves the economic benefit to allowing women to participate in the global economy
  • More women in politics and government = more laws that protect women’s rights

SGV: What is your vision and mission for the future?

AM: From Somaly:

I have enough in my life, but my dream is to see more and more people understanding victims and helping them. To see worldwide the survivors of trafficking who have been empowered and have built their competence to work independently. I want to see a world with no discrimination and no victims.

SGV: Your initiative is almost six years old. Are you now more optimistic or pessimistic about the future and for helping fundamentally change women’s lives?

AM: Optimistic – we must have hope! And the change that has occurred in the conversation around this issue just in the past ten years has been monumental. Even in the past three months, President Obama has named human trafficking as an issue priority and has become the first-ever US president to visit Cambodia.

Here, his team met with human trafficking survivors, anti-trafficking NGOs, and Cambodian government officials to learn more about current efforts to fight trafficking and to offer support as Cambodia steps up against corruption and protects human rights. He also pledged to continue to support prevention, law enforcement training, and victim rehabilitation.

SGV: Who do you admire and why?

AM: From Somaly:

So many people – I have so many strong, clever women in my life (and a few men too)! I have great admiration for the other strong women leaders who were working hard alongside me in the 1990s to defend the rights of women in Cambodia, especially the founders of Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center (CWCC) and Project Against Domestic Violence (PADV). I have been very grateful for their support over the years.

SGV: Finally, what is your message to the young girls of Cambodia, Asia and the rest of the world who are exploited and abused?

AM: One person can’t do everything but all of us can do one thing to change the world.

  • Follow: find AFESIP on Facebook, SMF on Facebook and Somaly on Twitter and follow us. Learn more about what we do by going to our website and reading about our programs. Stay updated on latest developments.
  • Share: educate your family and friends. Share news articles and stories. Tell them about our work, so they can never again say they did not know about sex slavery. If you are in circles of influence, put pressure on people with power to take action: Pressure governments and policy-makers; Encourage prosecution of johns and traffickers; Help to change mindsets: look at women and girls as victims and survivors of exploitation and not as prostitutes, and ensure that the rights of the victims and the voices of the survivors are top priority. Read my book, The Road of Lost Innocence and pass it on.
  • Get active: Join our worldwide network of grassroots level activists, Project Futures Global. We can support you in running your own innovative events and campaigns in your community to raise awareness and end trafficking.
  • Support: we cannot do this work without financial support. Our team is very good, hardworking and very dedicated, but the shelters need resources for food, water; programs need supplies, and we must lay the groundwork for survivor-led solution with training, support, and patience.  We have a plan, and we know how we want to get there: but are limited by funding as times are tight. We need your help.

SGV: Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us.