Somaly Mam’s story is one that you won’t soon forget.
Born in a tribal community in Cambodia’s Mondulkiri province, Mam grew up in dire poverty with no running water or electricity—and without parents. After years of begging for food and shelter from village elders, an older man posing as her grandfather promised the young girl he would reunite her with family.
Instead, he sold Mam into sexual slavery at a brothel filled with children where she was brutally tortured and raped daily for years.
After she was forced to watch the execution of her best friend who was made ‘an example’ to the other terrified slaves, Mam vowed to do whatever was necessary to escape. She built relationships with foreign clients who had money and prestige and was finally able to break away to Paris where she married a social worker. After discovering the human trafficking she endured as a young girl was rampant around the world, she returned to Cambodia with her husband where the two began what became Mam’s lifelong dedication to rescuing and rehabilitating women and children sex slaves.
At The Somaly Mam Foundation gala in New York this month, stars like Susan Sarandon, Russell Simmons and Petra Nemcova tributed the inspiring activist, who has been honored as a CNN Hero and Glamour Woman of the Year.
“Her greatest beauty secret is her spirit of giving,” Sarandon told YouBeauty at the fundraiser, where Mam referred to the philanthropic actress as one of her greatest mentors and a mothering figure.
The Body Shop is another supporter that has helped Mam’s namesake foundation grow in leaps and bounds. A couple of years ago, the socially-conscious beauty brand kicked off the End Sex Trafficking of Children & Young People campaign in over 50 countries, where associates in stores gathered over seven million signatures to petition the United Nations Human Rights Council for legislation to end the trade.
Due to petition efforts, Cambodia just recently passed its first anti-sex trafficking legislation and 15 other countries have committed to making actionable change as well.
The Body Shop also raised over $3.5 million for Mam's foundation with the help of a fundraising hand cream—a feat the retailer hopes to repeat early next year when it releases a charitable bag designed by Jimmy Choo founder Tamara Mellon. The monies have now guaranteed food, shelter, rehabilitation and career schooling for rescued slaves in the program, which the foundation previously had to reassess on a monthly basis and sometimes painfully cut due to costs.
“She’s the most soft-spoken, powerful woman I’ve ever met,” says Phil Kowalczyk, president of The Body Shop Americas. “Somaly puts a very real face on one of the most inhumane social injustices of our time.”
As for what keeps Mam motivated, she says it’s the altruistic beauty of giving that has helped her to overcome her own painful past and to stay focused on her life mission.
“Every girl that I help heals me," says Mam. "I have one now, who could not speak like many can’t, she was so traumatized when she first came to me. We rehabilitated her. It took years. She is now going to law school and leads a full, happy life. It is the most amazing feeling!”
While Mam thinks she was born in 1970 or 1971—there are no records of her birth—the glow of her complexion would easily have people guessing that she's a decade younger. But when asked if there’s a Thai beauty secret that she’s privy to, Mam laughs, saying it’s not her area of expertise with a blush. (After rifling through her bag, Mam finally fished out a product she uses daily—and it’s no surprise, given the global activist’s tremendous schedule: The Body Shop fair trade Deep Sleep Dreamy Pillow & Body Mist Spray, which blends jujube date with soothing oils of geranium, juniper and patchouli to induce a tranquil night’s sleep—a true beauty secret.)
She also acknowledges the role beauty plays in women’s lives. “Every woman wants to feel beautiful and valued,” says Mam. “I believe that outer beauty can’t last forever, but your inner beauty can grow more beautiful and powerful the older you get.”
In fact, the activist says the industry has the unique potential to unite women around the world to rise up together and support one another’s advancement.
“The beauty industry can be a force for change around the world in many ways," says Mam. "It can speak out on issues that greatly affect women and raise awareness, giving disenfranchised women around the world a voice globally. Educating consumers about important issues is the first step to creating change and inspiring women to get involved.”
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