A person’s past does not necessarily determine their future, Cambodian human rights activist Somaly Mam said in a lecture Friday afternoon in the State Farm Room of the Business and Aerospace Building.
As the keynote speaker for the annual Global Discourses in Women’s and Gender Studies conference, Mam discussed how she spent much of her early life as a sex slave but has dedicated the rest of it to helping others escape the abuse and illness she grew up with.
Mam said she was sold in slavery when she was a young teenager by a man posing as her grandfather. Even today, she said she does not know exactly how old she is or who her parents were. She also does not know her real name.
Her owner forced her to live in a snake and scorpion infested brothel with other young slaves, she said.
Even though she was beaten and starved, Mam said she did not consider running away at first because, in the brothel, she at least had people surrounding her. Outside, she said, she had no one.
It was only after the owner killed her best friend in front of her that she escaped.
Since then, Mam has made it her life’s work to help other girls escape from slavery and learn to move on with their lives.
In 2007, she established the Somaly Mam Foundation, a worldwide organization that has thus far helped more than 7,000 girls break the bonds of slavery.
“I teach them forgiveness,” Mam said. “Not to forgive them, but yourself – so you can be happy.”
Tina Johnson, director of the university’s Women’s and Gender Studies Program, said sex trafficking is a “very important issue in women’s studies.” Though males are also often victims of slavery, women and girls are more vulnerable to sex slavery, she said.
“She did not stop to think about the girls she left behind,” Johnson said. “She is a tower of strength.”
Mam, who has no formal education, said she admires the girls she helps. One is now attending law school, she said.
“I just have a heart,” Mam said. “They have brains. They’re my heroes.”
Worldwide, sex slavery is an annually $32 billion industry, Johnson said, adding that it is estimated four to five million people are living as slaves and two million of those are children.
Extreme poverty is one of the main reasons children are sold as slaves, Mam said.
Cambodia is divided between the “very rich and the very poor,” she said.
Clare Bratten, a professor of electronic media production, said this divide is not only found in Cambodia. People from “poor countries are being sent to rich countries,” she said.
Mam said more research is needed to determine other causes of sex slavery and better ways to combat it in a global setting.
“Life is love,” she said. “Love costs you nothing.”
By Kelsey Wells