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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Women's Conference opens on notes of sadness and hope

Somaly Mam, a native of Cambodia was forced into sex slavery as a youth. After escaping she vowed to fight the practice and started Acting for Women in Distressing Circumstances, in 1996 with her French husband, Pierre. Mam spoke during the morning session of the California Conference on Women held inside the Long Beach Sports Arena on Tuesday, October 27, 2009. ( Diandra Jay/Press-Telegram)

By Kelly Puente, Staff Writer

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Somaly Mam, a native of Cambodia who was sold into sex slavery as a child, fought back tears as she told her story in front of thousands of women.

"I have to show people we have hope in life," she said. "I'm not alone anymore. I know that all of you are here."

Mam was able to escape the brothel that was her prison and now dedicates her life to helping other victims of sex slavery. Through her organization, "Acting for Women in Distressing Circumstances," Mam has saved more than 5,000 girls, but with 1 in 40 Cambodian girls still being sold into sex slavery, the need is urgent.

"How many of them are still in a brothel now?" she asks.

More than 10,000 people packed the Long Beach Convention Center and Arena today for the annual Women's Conference. The first session, which kicked off at 8 a.m., focused on themes of self-worth, empowerment and leadership with speakers including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, actress Geena Davis, Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson and playwright Eve Ensler.

In a roundtable discussion on leadership in hard economic times,Schwarzenegger said not everyone may like his decisions, but it's his job as a leader to take risks and make tough choices.

"It's always more fun to lead in good times," the governor said. "But you also have to lead in tough times and leadership (now) is more important than ever."

Branson, who took a somewhat unconventional rout on his rise to become the Virgin Goup mega mogul, spoke of the importance of taking risks and not being afraid to fail.

"If you're bold and you're brave and not afraid of falling on your face and trying things, ultimately you will succeed," he said.

Aside from harsh economic times, Ensler said the world is also facing dangerous times as women around the world are victims of horrific violence. Now is the time, she said, for women to fight back.

"Dangerous times require great, bold passionate responses," Ensler said. "Be braver, be bolder, stand up, resist and find your voice."

Author Cheryl Saban spoke candidly of her own experience being raped at age 18 and her struggle to regain her self-confidence. Years after the incident, the author said a moment of fear during a public speech made her realize that she still harbored feelings of inadequacy and


"I had subconsciously let an incident in my life stunt my self-worth," she said "I discovered my voice had been muzzled."

Saban urged the women in the crowd, many of them tearful, to find their voices.

"You are an amazing force," she said. "Embrace it."

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