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Thought Leader: Somaly Mam

January 17, 2013

Somaly Mam

As part of the Carnegie Council Centennial Thought Leaders Forum, Carnegie Council's Devin Stewart spoke with Somaly Mam of Cambodia. She co-founded the Somaly Mam Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports anti-trafficking groups and helps women and girls who have been forced into sexual slavery.

DEVIN STEWART: The first question is, how do you see the world today? When you think about the world, how would you describe it, particularly from the big moral issues? What issues do you think are important?

SOMALY MAM: It's not easy for me because I come from Cambodia and see the world here. The world here, of course, is so different. Here, with so many people, right now they're learning, they're helping, and they just want to make a difference.

But at the same time, in Cambodia where I live, it still has poverty. It still has lack of education, poor education. Women and men are not in the same place. There is discrimination between women and men. We have many different things. Discrimination still happens in Cambodia.

So for me, it's not easy to determine this question for the world, because I come from a poor country, and a rich country is so different. It's so different.

DEVIN STEWART: That's a great answer. Tell us more about that. Are there things in common between Cambodia and the rest of the world?

SOMALY MAM: The thing in common is human beings. But again, it's not the same because of the culture, because of the country. You are here in the United States; we are in Asia. Asia is so different, too, between Cambodia, between Thailand, between Japan, or China. The culture is also the big barrier for everyone. But in common, we are human beings.

DEVIN STEWART: Common human beingswhat does that mean? Is there some shared experience or shared values?

SOMALY MAM: I just want to add, we are human beings. We need to respect each other. We need to help each other. Humans fear the same thing, even if you are not in the same culture. But when you get pain, you get the same pain. If one woman or girl has been trafficked or has been raped, they are suffering the same way. But it's not the same way to help, of course.

Being a human being is like, for me, sharing each other, and peace.

DEVIN STEWART: Tell us about the biggest moral question that you think is important today. What's the most important question in the world today?

SOMALY MAM: For me, the most important problem is human trafficking. Why? Because they're human.

I just want to give you an example of one of my girls. She was five years old. She had been trafficked. She had been raped, been in a brothel. Now she gets out. She's got HIV/AIDS.

Then she tells me, "Mommy, when you go somewhere, will you please tell all the men, for a few minutes of their pleasure, they can kill me. They can kill my friends. Even if we survive, we survive dead inside."

So for me, first of all, humans are so important for me. Trafficking, for me, is so important, because it's about humans, it's about the people, it's about the women, it's about the men who are suffering. It's about the killing. It's not just you're dead. It's killing people inside, but they are trying to survive.

Who is more important than human beings, than life?

DEVIN STEWART: Tell us more about the international situation with trafficking.

SOMALY MAM: If you talk about trafficking, it's worldwide. It's everywhere. It's not about just Asia or Cambodia or Vietnam. I talk about Cambodia because I base everything there, in Cambodia.

The trafficking is worldwide. The problem is, I'm always saying, the organized crime is very well organized. All the traffickers, they are very well organized. The people who work against organized crime, we are not well organized. For more than 20 years, we have talked about trafficking. We talk about how to end trafficking, how to help the victims. But we keep talking. We're still talking and we keep talking. How about actions? We act, but it's not as much as we want.

Once a woman has been suffering in a brothel, for them, day by day is so long. We all, outside, talk about how life is so short. But for them, life is so long.

So for me, I need internationally to have more people reacting.

DEVIN STEWART: Given what you have seen on the ground, dealing with these very, very important problems, are you optimistic or pessimistic so far?

SOMALY MAM: I'm optimistic. I have to have optimism. If I don't have it, how I can continue my work? I have hope. More than 10 years later, I have my girls going to law school, I have my girls going to university for psychology. I can see some of my girls have now become teachers. They're teaching a program in Cambodia. I saw some of my girls and boys right now, they stand up, they're traveling everywhere, talking, sharing. So I have this optimism.

I saw the attitude of the people changing. But I'll tell you, they are changing, but it's not as much as I want. I know they try all their best, but I want them to be faster, to act, to save us now, help us now, how to end it.

DEVIN STEWART: Our founder, Andrew Carnegie, was hoping that one day the world would achieve peace. As we approach our 100th anniversary, we want to think about, is that a realistic goal? What do you think about peace?

SOMALY MAM: For me, peace is great, but peace is always up to the people, up to the person. For me, peace is always in the mind.

We have to understand what peace means to the people. Like myself, I work in the field with every single girl, with the suffering girls. I am always teaching my girls to have peace in their minds, even if they have been through many things. But get peace. Don't just sit down and cry and complain because you have been through many things. Now you stand up and accept it and have this peace in your mind and try to have order.

So for me, peace is so important, to get your mind filled. I have peace. I can help other people because of this peace. If they don't have any peace, how they can go and help the people? We need to have more peace in the mind.

DEVIN STEWART: How do you get peace of mind?

SOMALY MAM: I learn from a lot of people. I never had peace in my mind before. By learning day by day, by learning from my girls, and by learning from my team, the people who support myself and my work, peace comes in my mind. Everywhere that I go, even when I'm suffering, I think about peace and I have peace.

DEVIN STEWART: How would you describe peace of mind?

SOMALY MAM: When the people talk to me, like, "Somaly, what you do is bad," I always see my good, my peace, a reality. When I see the girls that have been saved when they were six years old, and right now they are in law school and they get marriedthen I have done a great thing, and I have my peace in my mind. No one can attack me because I have peace in my mind.

So that is my peace. It's what I teach the girls. The girls that come to the center, I want them to be happy, to have peace in their minds. Don't think about the suffering, the past suffering. Think about today and tomorrow, what you want to be, and get peace. So peace is a reality, right?

DEVIN STEWART: When you think about the problems you have talked about today, who is responsible to act?

SOMALY MAM: I think we all are responsible. If we are not responsible, problems grow day after day.

DEVIN STEWART: If we're all responsible, how do you coordinate that?

SOMALY MAM: How do I coordinate? I don't have the education to coordinate it. My work is to react right nowhow to save the girls, how to make them happy, how to give them a new life in my center. To coordinate it, I need all of you. You all use your educationyou're smart and you're cleverto help me to coordinate it.

DEVIN STEWART: Is that what leadership means to you? Tell me about leadership.

SOMALY MAM: I don't have a great education, but in my understanding, for me to be a leader, I have to be ready, ready for success, ready for "unsuccess," ready to listen to everyone, ready to change, ready to stand up again and then go again.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you want to talk about your foundation in general?

SOMALY MAM: I just want to share about my world. The foundation is the Somaly Mam Foundation. Today we just try to help the victims of sex trafficking.

At the same time, we want also to show other people, make them understand what the victim's life is like. Some people just say that the victims, we save them, we take five minutes and we save them, and then we give them money, we give them a job, and it's okay. You can take five minutes to save the girl, to save this victim from the brothel. After you save them, after five minutes to save them, what are you going to do with them? You need to have compassion. You need to think about five years, about 10 years, about 20 years, exactly as you would with your own kids, exactly the same.

Some of the people, they get excited, after they go to the brothel and they take the girl out. But after that, they don't know what to do with them.

I have my team working with the Somaly Mam Foundation in two ways, to let the people know about it and to get the funding. But my work every single day is to go to the brothel, trying to empower these girls to leave the brothel. Sometimes you can get the body out of the brothel, but the mind, the feeling that they are victimized, they cannot get that out out of them. So it's important to empower the mind to leave the brothel, to leave the victimization.

We have the center that can provide them, of course, with education, because they don't have educationreading, alphabetizationprovide them also with skill training. We have psychology. We have everything in the center.

I try to do all my best, all I have to do. But I still miss some things. It's still not easy. But it's my work every day.

I say to everyone, you can take five minutes to save the girl. Think about 5 years later, about 10 years later, what do you do with them?

I also want to tell everyone, when you save people's lives, thinking about one life is so important. A lot of people ask me about the numbers. I talk about the quality, not about the numbers. One life is so meaningful. You save one and then after that you save another one and then after that you save another one. We cannot save a thousand or a hundred lives right now.

DEVIN STEWART: Any other issues you want to talk about?

SOMALY MAM: All through my life, I have been through many things. To see my girls every single daywe have been through many things, horror, and we still appreciate our lives, because we have been saved, because we are able to also save other people. The girls and I, we never get complaints, what they have been through.

At the same time, when I come here to New York and I see the peopleI met with some victims, some survivors, or some normal people. Some of them, they complain because they have been raped. Some of them really complain because the weather today is not good. It's too cold.

I just feel like they don't know how lucky they are to be here. You have been raped, but you have psychologists and other people helping you, you have law enforcement. You have many things. Why do you just sit and complain? Why don't you just recognize you've been raped and stand up and help others? Appreciate your life.

At the same time, a lot of the people, sometimes they just get mad because it's too cold or too hot. They're not happy with what they have.

For me, I just want to share that: Be happy with what you are. Appreciate your life. That is the best life. Life is short or long. It's up to you. What do you want to be?

But for me, lifeI just want to be happy and peaceful, by appreciating it.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you very much. Fantastic.