The Feministing Five: Somaly Mam

Project Futures is a new non-profit organization devoted to ending the horror that is global sex trafficking. And they’ve set out to do that in a very interesting way. Simply put, Project Futures is trying to make volunteering for social justice cool, by getting people, and especially young people, engaged in ending trafficking, whether it’s through concerts or cocktail hours. That might sound uncomfortably frivolous – after all, sex trafficking is a serious problem. But Project Futures is about changing the way we think about volunteering so that soon, it’s something we integrate into our daily lives, instead of, as they put it, “outdated activity run by retired people with time on their hands.” Founded in Australia, Project Futures recently partnered with the Somaly Mam Foundation to take Project Futures global, and just this week, they launched in New York.

Cambodian Mam is a former victim of sex trafficking-turned-activist, and the Foundation, like Project Futures, is devoted to ending the practice of sex trafficking. Mam was sold into sexual slavery as an adolescent and, once she was helped to escape, decided to spend her life helping other women and girls to escape, and working to change cultures in which is it possible and acceptable to sell girls and women into brothels.

Mam’s work is important and the scale of the problem is awesome. It is a pleasure to be able to share her ideas and insights with the Feministing community.

And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Somaly Mam.

Chloe Angyal: How did you become an activist fighting against human trafficking?

Somaly Mam: I am a survivor of human trafficking. That of course is my first motivation. I want to empower victims to become survivors and in turn empower those survivors to help others and create awareness about this issue. Also I think it helps all of us, victims and survivors alike to empower each other and others. It helps us to heal to share our stories knowing it could empower another victim to change her life as well.

CA: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?

SM: My girls are my heroes. All of them. All of the victims and the survivors and the people who help all of us. In Cambodia we do not really have “fictional” heroes…we only know the reality which, we came from and to survive that, that makes my girls all heroes to me.

CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?

SM: Most recent was the bombing at the Thai border. I was travelling to see some of my shelters in Vietnam and just after I returned there was a bombing at the Thailand border and several of my girls were killed. It is a tragedy. It makes me so angry to see their suffering and now to have even more violence after they are trying to change their lives… that is terrible.

CA: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?

SM: I think there are different problems for women everywhere and that is itself a challenge. Even though in Cambodia things are better for women now than when I was young it is still not as good as it could be. In Asia and many other parts of the world women are not given the same rights. I think the challenge is for women who do have rights to understand the problems of the women who do not and then to take action to help them. The women who are empowered already have to empower the ones who are not but also understand why it is important for them to do that.

CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you you pick?

SM: To drink I would take sparkling water. That is my favorite but also because it is harder to drink. That way when we are thirsty we can just have a little to quench our thirst and then have enough left to share.

I would bring rice as the food. Rice of course is basic to us in Cambodia but it also reminds me of how I started and reminds me of my girls. Even before I founded AFESIP, before I had shelters, when I first started to rescue some girls and they just stayed at my house, sometimes all we had to eat was a little bit of rice. Sometimes nothing. But when we had the rice we would all cook together and eat together as a family. That made us happy even though we were hungry. Today in the centers all the girls eat and cook together. They are all a family, they are all sisters. Sharing and being a part of a family, especially when they may not have anyone else that is very important. It’s part of healing and part of empowering the victims and the survivors.

The last question, who I would bring, I would bring the survivors. My girls. I am inspired by many women, many women who are not afraid to stand up for what they believe…that takes courage. But I think my girls they have survived more than anything most people imagine so they are the best to come with me to survive on a desert island.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at chloesangyal.com

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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