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Last updated: October 10, 2017

Strength Through Beauty: Careers in Beauty Transform the Future for Human Trafficking Survivors

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By Erin Chambers


Sexual slavery is an international issue. For  many young women and children in Cambodia, it’s a horrific reality. All too often, young girls are sold to or forced to work in brothels before they’re teenagers. There, they are beaten, starved, raped and, in some cases, kept under lock and key.


That’s what happened to Somaly Mam. Born into extreme poverty, Somaly was trafficked as a young girl and sold into sexual slavery. She endured unimaginable torture and sexual abuse in the brothel where she was forced to work, and even witnessed the savage murder of her best friend. But Somaly would not be broken—she miraculously escaped and made a commitment to begin life anew.


Somaly Mam at the Opening of the Somaly Mam Beauty Salon
(Image courtesy of Bumble and bumble and Clifford Picket Photography)


A Safe Haven
When the human body becomes an object of shame rather than celebration, the emotional results can be devastating. Somaly needed to heal, but she decided that the road to recovery was not through forgetting, but rather in becoming an active agent for change and empowerment. So she built shelters and dedicated herself to rescuing young girls and children from the situations she had endured. For the child victims of human trafficking in Cambodia, the Somaly Mam Foundation has become a haven for healing, growth and empowerment.


Sadly, though, removing the girls from sexual slavery is only the beginning. Many times, families shun the victims out of shame and refuse to support them in any way. So the Somaly Mam Foundation and its grant partner AFESIP Cambodia (French for “Acting for Women in Distressing Situations”) work to empower survivors through educational programs and job training. One of those educational programs is hairdressing.


The Somaly Mam Beauty Salon in Siem Reap, Cambodia
(Image courtesy of Bumble and bumble and Clifford Picket Photography)


Building a Future
It was the perfect partnership when the Somaly Mam Foundation, AFESIP and the Estée Lauder Companies, Inc. came together to open the Somaly Mam Beauty Salon in Siem Reap, Cambodia. “For many years the salon has been my dream and now it is becoming a reality,” Somaly says. “As a survivor of sexual slavery, I understand how important education and skills training is for these young women. This salon helps victims become survivors, and helps the survivors become a part of the solution to end sexual slavery.”


To prepare the Somaly Mam Beauty Salon for opening, the Bumble and bumble Design Team lent its expertise in design, salon operations, client relations and advanced hairdressing education. The first project was creating the space; the Bumble and bumble team collaborated with survivors to design a relaxing oasis that combined the young women’s love of bright colors and flowers with the Bumble and bumble design aesthetic. Next on the to-do list was supplies—Bobbi Brown and Clinique provided cosmetics and skincare items, Bumble and bumble supplied all haircare and styling products, while T3 delivered a full range of heat styling tools, brushes and combs to stock the salon.


The Somaly Mam Beauty Salon
(Image courtesy of Bumble and bumble and Clifford Picket Photography)


A Common Language
Bumble and bumble also sent stylists from Bb. University to educate the survivors. “At Bumble and bumble, we believe that education can be transformative,’ says Bumble and bumble President Peter Lichtenthal.“Two of our Bb. University educators, Sarah Rappolt and Nico Aceves, traveled to Siem Reap twice—once in July and again in October for the salon’s grand opening. Our goal is to send stylist educators to Siem Reap once per quarter, so that these young women can continue their advanced education. Both our educators and the young women are transformed by the interaction.”


Extreme poverty in Phnom Penh, Cambodia


The experience has been every bit as rewarding for the Bumble and bumble stylists as for the survivors. Sarah Rappolt kept a journal and described her first interaction with the girls upon arriving in Siem Reap: “I did not want to ask questions about what happened to the girls out of respect for their privacy,” she wrote, “but Somaly was very forthcoming about the kinds of places and the shape the girls were in when she rescued them. She and the girls seemed to have no shame in what happened to them and were willing to share their experiences. We were all able to see each other as people rather than just an experience.” During the training, Sarah asked the girls what type of music they wanted to hear. “Romantic music!” they said, and it struck a chord. “I realized the girls are not bitter about what happened to them,” she wrote. “They still have hope and want to fall in love after all they have been through.” 


Bb. University Educators Sarah and Nico demonstrate techniques for the girls.
(Image courtesy of Bumble and bumble and Clifford Picket Photography)


Sarah and Nico gave demonstrations and conducted hands-on classes for blow-drying, cutting and styling. They also found that the girls had a keen interest in braiding. “The girls’ strength lies in their openness, eagerness and skill level,” Nico wrote in his journal, “Their sectioning was immaculate and they picked up on the flat brush technique we were teaching them very quickly. Point-cutting was new for them, and they were very eager to begin the hands-on portion of our lessons.” Sarah was amazed by how easy it was to communicate. “How wonderful it is to take a trade you’ve mastered and teach it to someone halfway across the world—and not even speak the same language!” she wrote. “Our trade has become the common language between us.”


By the end of each visit to the Somaly Mam Beauty Salon, Nico and Sarah were sad to leave but grateful for the experience and for the opportunity to help fight against human trafficking. “Even though my efforts were small in comparison to Somaly’s, she taught me that anything and anyone can help—with the words we speak and the actions we take,” says Nico. Sarah agrees, noting in her journal, “I think I have finally found my hair heroes! These girls are so resilient and strong. They are not only surviving but flourishing and are well on their way to success.”


To learn more about the Somaly Mam Foundation, visit


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