Somaly Mam is a stunning and effervescent international activist. But it wasn’t always thus.

She was born into a life of poverty in Mondulkiri province, Cambodia. Abandoned by her parents, she was sold by a man posing as her grandfather into sexual slavery.

She doesn’t know how old she was (she guesses 12 or 13), or what her name was when she was forced to work as a prostitute. She and the other girls in the brothel were tortured and manipulated. They felt scared and trapped. “When you are in the brothel, you never have the idea to get out. Who will help me? It is not easy to get out,” she tells Metro in a phone interview. “I know what is painful — when you need someone to hold you but no one does.”

Mam observed something unimaginably horrible. “One day my friend was killed in front of me,” she says. Watching a friend being murdered by a pimp was so terrifying for the young Mam that she ran away. She vowed that day she would make preventing such atrocities her life’s work.

Mam is now a world-renowned activist and the lifeblood of the Somaly Mam Foundation, which provides rescue and rehabilitation services to girls who are victims of sex slavery in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. The Foundation has saved 3,000 girls since its founding in 1996.

Now everyday Canadians can help too. The Body Shop has teamed up with the Somaly Mam Foundation in a three-year campaign to prevent the trafficking of girls and young people for sexual purposes. The other partner is Beyond Borders, the Canadian link in the international group End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes (EPCAT).

It is estimated that millions of children worldwide, like Mam, are trafficked for sexual exploitation. Traffickers prey on children and young people to meet the sexual demands of pedophiles and people who pay for sex. Some traffickers are part of organized criminal networks.

The Body Shop in 60 countries is selling products such as Soft Hands Kind Heart lotion to benefit these organizations. Some of the proceeds go directly to Mam’s shelters. “I have more than 200 girls to feed every day in shelters. Now I have hope,” she says.

What does she wish for? “A world without trafficking of sex slaves. A world with love.”

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