Former sex slave details life at Kew Gardens event

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During her teenage years, Somaly Mam said she had to live through the toughest hell as a sex slave in a Cambodian brothel.

But after she found the courage to take a stand and through years of hard work, she was not only able to escape her captors but also help tens of thousands of women around the world who were entrapped in similar situations.

On Friday, Mam, 39, shared her experiences with a group of domestic violence victims at the city’s Family Justice Center in Kew Gardens to encourage them to stay strong and spread the message of hope.

“By helping people, you can help yourself,” she said.

Mam, who runs the international nonprofit group AFESIP Cambodia and the Somaly Mam Foundation, both of which help victims of the sex trade, said the most important step in helping themselves was regaining self-confidence.

After she escaped her brothel in 1993 at the age of 23, the activist said her time as a sex slave had a long-lasting effect on her psychologically.

“For many years I was abused, but that’s not what made me pain. What made me pain was trying to have people understand me,” she said.

Mam, however, said the pain has eased since she started sharing her story with more and more people over the years.

She was sold to the brothel by a man who posed as her grandfather in 1982 and for more than a decade was raped, tortured and abused by dozens of men.

“I had no idea how to step up. They said you are a slave. You do whatever we [ask you to] do,” she recalled.

After witnessing the murder of a fellow slave, Mam made an escape from the brothel and with the help of a French aide was able to leave the East Asian country.

Three years after her escape, she started AFESIP Cambodia to fight sex trafficking in third world nations and give victims training and job opportunities to work as independent women. By working with those victims through the years, Mam said her internal pain has dissipated and her confidence has grown.

“I’m so enriched by the love of the people who understand me,” she said.

Mam told the victims at the Family Center that they, too, could make a difference by being open about their experiences and being advocates against abuse. She added that organizations like the Family Justice Center are powerful tools for women because they give them a legitimate venue to gather and share ideas.

“I know how to fight [slavery] ... but I don’t know how to end it,” Mam said.

Reach reporter Ivan Pereira by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4546.

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