AFESIP Cambodia: Formerly Trafficked Women Form Businesses


AFESIP Cambodia is a nonprofit NGO established in 1996 by Somaly Mam. The name, translated from the French, means “Action for Women in Distressing Situations.” Their mission is to assist victims of sex trafficking in Cambodia. They do this by rescuing girls and women from sexual slavery and allowing them to recover in a series of safe houses. They then learn vocational skills designed to help them become self-sustaining small businesswomen.

The Root of the Problem

It is estimated that each year, approximately 800,000 to 2 million people are trafficked across international borders to participate in the global sex trade. An overwhelming majority – 80% – of them are women and children. That number doesn’t even include those women and children who are trafficked within the borders of their own country. The global sex trade is valued at $5 – 9 billion dollars annually.

Some become victims of trafficking by their own family’s unwitting hand. Extreme poverty and little hope for education or jobs often cause families to resort extreme measures, some turning their child over to a potential “employer” for as little as $15. Others are kidnapped or coerced by strangers. They live in unspeakable conditions, are forced to do unspeakable things and suffer mental, physical and spiritual abuse.

Who is Somaly Mam?

When it comes to sex trafficking, Somaly Mam can speak from experience. Somaly, who grew up in extreme poverty in rural Cambodia, lost her parents when the Khmer Rouge was at the height of their power. Merely ten years old, she was kept as a “wife” for a number of years by a man who called himself her grandfather, but who she really didn’t even know. Somaly was then sold by the man into sex slavery at the age of fourteen.

Thanks to the help of an aid worker from France, Somaly was able to escape her situation in Cambodia, but the memory of it will always haunt her. She vowed to return to save other women and girls from a similar fate. She started AFESIP in 1996 to rescue victims of sex trafficking, help them recover and help them develop the tools necessary to reintegrate into society and achieve financial independence. Ten years later, she founded the Somaly Mam Foundation to help educate the world about the global sex trade and to advocate on behalf of its victims.

What AFESIP Does

AFESIP tackles the trafficking issue on a number of fronts. They have an investigative and legal team that identifies potential victims, helps them escape and assists them through any following legal process. They do extensive outreach in high prostitution areas, handing out condoms, educating women on public health issues and informing them of AFESIP’s services. Women who escape or are rescued are provided refuge in one of three shelters throughout Cambodia.

Once inside the shelters, AFESIP helps each woman develop a reintegration plan and decide upon avocational skill. All residents receive training in small business management, with vocational options including hairdressing, sewing, housekeeping, weaving and other handicrafts. AFESIP also offers some girls the chance to work as peer educators.

The training programs range from 4 – 18 months, depending on the vocation. Once the training is complete AFESIP helps each woman reintegrate into their chosen location. Some choose to return home, while others settle in new locations. With their newly learned vocational skills, many open up small businesses in the form of hairdressing or sewing shops.

To date, Somaly Mam’s two organizations have helped over 4,000 women escape sexual slavery. At any given time, there are typically around 200 women receiving training and other services from AFESIP.

Mliss (not her real name) is just one of them. After her parents died, Mliss went to live with an aunt. After working anumber of low paying jobs, she followed a friend to Phnom Penh on the promise of higher paying factory work. She didn’t know that the friend had actually sold her to a woman who ran a brothel. Mliss was 14. After working for that woman for nearly a year, she was sold to another brothel where she was forced to have sex with 12-15 men each day. She later escaped with the help of a man who took her as his wife, but he was abusive. When she was 17, and several months pregnant, Mliss finally returned to live with her aunt. She heard about AFESIP from a peer educator who visited the karaoke bar where she was working.

She is now studying sewing, English and computer skills at AFESIP. She hopes to someday use her training to design clothes and sell them over the internet.

How You Can Help

If you want to help Mliss and others like her escape sexual slavery and become financially independent, contact AFESIP and the Somaly Mam Foundation. You can also find the Somaly Mam Foundation on Facebook and Twitter.

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