One of the most pressing concerns Mam, who crusades against forced prostitution, is facing is scarce funding for the shelter she helped start for women and girls who are abused and coerced into the sex trade in Cambodia and neighbouring countries.

The current credit crunch also has had a effect on the number of women and children turning to prostitution to survive and the ability of Mam to care for her more than 200 charges in shelters.

"Since we opened the shelter, I always face this problem. Like the last five months, no rice, we cannot feed the children," Mam, of Agir pour les Femmes En Situation Precaire (AFESIP or Acting for Women in Distressing Situations), told Reuters.

AFESIP, a largely Spanish-funded grass-roots group, requires about $1.5 million annually to fund its efforts in Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos, Mam said. She also travels around the world to raise money for the Somaly Mam Foundation that puts a spotlight on forced prostitution.

Earlier this month, Cambodia said it expects an increase in prostitution and human trafficking as the unemployment rate climbs during the economic downturn.

The poor Southeast Asian nation has been trying hard in recent years to rid itself of its reputation as a haven for perverts and pedophiles, but with limited success.

Mam, in Singapore to raise funds for the group, said it was culturally acceptable to keep a girl for a week and rape her to improve one's health and luck in Cambodia, or to cure HIV. Some of the victims she has seen are only a few months old.

The UN estimates that out of the two million women and children trafficked every year, 30 percent are in Asia.

At the AFESIP shelters, the women and girls, some as young as four, receive medical and psychological treatment. They are also taught English, French and vocational skills such as weaving and hairdressing so they can fit back into society.

One batch is heading to a university in the United States this year.

"The children in the shelter, they keep me going. They are my everything, my light, my love - they are my heroes," said Mam, who traced her dramatic journey from sex slave to crusader against prostitution in a memoir, "The Road of Lost Innocence."

The Cambodian activist also faces threats, occasionally veiled but always frightening, from pimps and organised crime syndicates on a daily basis in her struggle to eradicate sexual slavery and human trafficking.

"If they want to kill, they kill," Mam said. "Organised crime, they are all very organised. But the people who are against organised crime, no one is well organised. So now they have to stop talking and start working."

Reuters - May 28, 2009