By Stacey Gualandi/September 15, 2011
The statistics are shocking. Over two million girls every year are forced to become sex slaves around the globe. Human trafficking is a multi-billion dollar criminal industry, second only to the drug trade.
Finding an end to this global crisis begins with one woman: Somaly Mam. Her personal vision, she says, is a world where young women and girls are safe from sex slavery, girls as young as four-years -old.
In 2007, Somaly co-founded the Somaly Mam Foundation, a non-profit committed to ending modern day slavery through shelters, awareness campaigns and rehabilitation programs. Because of her efforts, she is now a force to be reckoned with. She has already rescued over 7,000 young women and children.
Somaly made a rare West Coast appearance at the SLS Beverly Hills Hotel to launch her Foundation’s PROJECT FUTURES global Program in Los Angeles. Meeting and talking with her for the first time, I wanted to call her Somaly “Mom”, because that is what she has become to so many girls – girls who were once facing a life of torture, rape, and often times death.
“My mission is to fight and end human trafficking … to give my girls a home. I know how to help a girl and how to love them, how to make them hope and have a new life.”
As a young girl herself in her native Cambodia, Somaly was kidnapped, forced to work in brothels, and repeatedly raped and tortured on a daily basis until one day she miraculously escaped. It was at that moment that she dedicated her life to rescuing, rehabilitating and reintegrating the innocent victims of sexual slavery.
“The girls keep me going. They are a part of my life. We have been through the same thing. I do it from my heart day-by-day. The girls teach me, and I teach them.”
She has earned numerous honors, including being chosen a CNN Hero and one of Glamour magazine’s Women of the Year. In 2009 she was listed among TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People.
“I was never thinking I could be doing this today. I never thought I could help so many girls,” she says modestly.
Somaly walked a celebrity-filled red carpet with her 15-year-old daughter, Adana, by her side. It’s a far cry from her own childhood in Cambodia. Now Somaly is turning to the young and famous for help.
SMF Global Ambassadors, including actress AnnaLynne McCord, model Angel McCord, Pretty Little Liars’ Shay Mitchell, MTV’s Ashley Rickards and actors Ron Livingston and his wife, Mad Men’s Rosemarie DeWitt, were all on hand to support her new platform for change.
Livingston has tried to do whatever he can to help ever since he met Somaly five years ago. “She’s brave, passionate and has experienced what she’s fighting. She is on the frontlines everyday,” he says.
Many of these young stars have read Somaly’s book, “The Road of Lost Innocence,” and visited Cambodia to witness her in action. Angel McCord said it changed her life. “My calling is to be a voice because I have one. We need to change the laws and how people perceive it. Stop sweeping it under the rug. It is slavery. It is unacceptable. It’s a sin on humanity. The best thing I can do is speak, scream, write, blog…whatever I can about it.”
Both she and her sister talked about their own difficult childhoods and their personal connection to these young victims. AnnaLynne, one of the stars of “90210,” at one point broke down on the red carpet as her emotions got the best of her.
“It’s my fight too because what has happened to those girls in a smaller way has happened to me. I have a personal connection to what violation of body means, and abuse and what that entails. And Somaly has a personal reason to be a part of it. I needed someone who can’t sleep unless she’s fighting this issue because that’s how I feel about it.”
PROJECT FUTURES global Program Director Amy Merrill says there is so much potential with the younger generation. “They have proven that they care and have a charitable intention. With PROJECT FUTURES we want to capture that and give them a platform to join this cause. This program is all about using the skills you have already, what-you-know, and who-you-know to take action.”
In fact, classical pianist Chloe Flower says she was so inspired, she collaborated with Baby Face and Deepak Chopra and devoted her next album to the life of a trafficked human. All proceeds will go to SMF.
“Music has the ability to peak certain emotions but no one wants to talk about a 4-year-old getting raped 30 times a day. That’s why I am using music to help. If we change the mindset of young males who have the potential of participating in human trafficking as they get older, then they’ll grow up not to participate in this kind of behavior. “
Somaly’s mission is not without risk. She literally enters these brothels to rescue the girls herself. And for that she has received numerous death threats. Her oldest daughter was once kidnapped by those behind the threats.
Despite the threats, Adana supports her mother’s continued fight. “I’m proud of my mom. She is my hero. I will be like her. I will help. I won’t give up.”
As she walked the red carpet, Somaly was grateful for the support, for having a voice, and for giving so many the right to live. She says she is determined to keep fighting to end slavery once and for all, no matter the risk.
“It is dangerous. You can die. But I die inside if I don’t continue. I’m happy with what I’m doing. If they kill me, I have my girls. 7000. That I saved.”
To learn more about the Somaly Mam Foundation, go to their website at www.somaly.org/.
RED CARPET EVENT PHOTOS: BEVERLY LINDO (EYEAM.shooter)