Somaly Mam Legros describes it as a flash, the moment she realized what her mission had to be.
While interviewing prostitutes for a Medicins Sans Frontiers AIDS project several years ago, she realized that their lives were not much different from the one she had escaped.
“I understand because I went through all they did,” she said in her garden-enclosed Phnom Penh rehabilitation center, Afesip. “Therefore it is necessary that I help them.”
Her work rescuing child prostitutes and reintegrating them into society recently gained her the Asturias Prize, Spain’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize. She flew to Ovieda, Spain last month to be awarded the honor along with six other women from around the world.
Somaly Mam Legros, an orphan taken care of by a man who she said may or may not have been her grandfather, doesn’t know precisely how old she is, nor where exactly in Mon-dolkiri province she was born.
“When I was about 15 I was sold [by my grandfather] to a man who became my first husband,” she said. “Then afterwards, there were two others—they were not officially husbands, not boyfriends. It’s difficult to explain…. You cannot speak of love in these cases.”
The horror of many years of mistreatment by men was not a subject she wished to recall.
“I was beaten and raped by many men,” she said simply, and refused to elaborate.
Her face, shaped by years of determination, she spoke in fluent French but with the periodic difficulty of one striving constantly to maintain a dam to hold back angry passions. She spoke of her past with a reticence in keeping with the philosophy she uses to counsel prostitutes: Learn a trade and be independent so you do not ever have to return to past misery.
In 1991, Somaly Mam Legros met her present husband, Pierre, a French citizen, and married him in 1993. After two years of studying in France, she returned to Cambodia and volunteered with Medicins Sans Frontiers.
Pierre Legros said that after his wife was inspired to help prostitutes, she borrowed the family car and visited every brothel in the Phnom Penh area to learn more about the conditions of Cambodian prostitutes.
After many difficulties obtaining financing because of poor perceptions of prostitution, she established Afesip in February 1996 with the aid of NGOs such as Save the Children UK and, later, the UN Children’s Fund.
In conjunction with the Ministry of Social Affairs, Afesip investigates brothels to rescue juvenile prostitutes—some as young as 12 and all held against their will. The group provides the young girls with vocational training, psychological counseling, and medical care in preparation for their re-entry into Cambodian society.
Afesip has now rehabilitated 150 prostitutes, she said.
And in January, Somaly Mam Legros was catapulted to fame after a French television documentary on Cambodian prostitution showedhorrified European audiences her work and the harsh reality of sex slavery.
Somaly Mam Legros emphatically said she was not against men in general, nor even of prostitution as such, but only of child and forced prostitution. However, she preferred to put her life, and those of the prostitutes she aids, into a wider context illustrating how difficult it is for Cambodian women to take charge of their own lives and minds.
Just as prostitutes have no autonomy over their bodies, Somaly Mam Legros said Cambodian women in general have little autonomy over the development of their minds. The society which allows 12-year-olds to become prostitutes, sold by mothers, aunts and friends, is created by a lack of communication in the family and low educational standards for women, she said.
Somaly Mam Legros said she hoped she could address both the lack of communication and educational opportunities with the growing international recognition of Afesip, whose offices in France and Belgium she now oversees.
“Freedom, there isn’t much of [for women] in Cambodia,” she said.
(Additional reporting by Lor Chandara)