Sex trafficking activist resigns over personal history inconsistencies

Queen Sofia of Spain receives scarves with Somaly Mam, during her tour of Tom Dy, Rehabilitation and Profession Center for Women and Children Victims of Traffic and Sexual Exploitation, on the outskirt of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Queen Sofia of Spain receives scarves with Somaly Mam, during her tour of Tom Dy, Rehabilitation and Profession Center for Women and Children Victims of Traffic and Sexual Exploitation, on the outskirt of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
AP Photo/Heng Sinith

Internationally heralded Cambodian anti-sex trafficking activist Somaly Mam resigned from her Somaly Mam Foundation this week. It is the result of a Newsweek cover story profiling Mam and uncovering inaccuracies about her personal story. Journalist Simon Marks, who also writes for the Cambodia Daily, has spent more than two years investigating and uncovering inconsistencies in Mam’s story and work.

Despite the well documented issues with the stories Mam and her organization were telling, it was the publication in Newsweek that finally led to her stepping down. Mam’s resignation was announced in a letter by Somaly Mam Foundation Executive Director Gina Reiss-Wilchins, on Wednesday.

“We look forward to moving past these events and focusing all of our energies on this vital work, ensuring that the hundreds of women and girls that are currently being served in our grant partner AFESIP’s three centers for recovery and rehabilitation, receive the care that they so desperately need, and that we safeguard their identities and privacy to every extent possible,” wrote Reiss-Wilchins.

The foundation has obtained legal counsel to conduct an independent investigation into the matter. In the Newsweek story, the personal history of Mam and one of the girls she rescued, Long Pros, were found to have notable fabrications. The impact on Mam’s Agir Pour Les Femmes en Situation Précaire (AFESIP), translated as Acting for Women in Distressing Situations, centers, they take-in and support girls who have been trafficked, is uncertain.

In 2012, Marks started reporting for the Cambodia Daily about the inconsistencies about Mam’s story. Former staff members told him that Mam’s story regarding the kidnapping of her daughter in 2006 in retaliation her work was not true. The story of the supposed kidnapping was initially published in Glamour Magazine in 2006 and was cited in a speech by UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon years later.  It was confirmed by the father that their daughter was not kidnapped, but ran away with her boyfriend in 2006.

“She has never been kidnapped by anyone. She escaped from home because at that time I was not there and she have a few arguments with Somaly. She escaped with her boyfriend and she disappeared and Somaly discovered her in Battambang,” [said the girl’s father and Mam’s ex-husband Pierre Legros].

Shortly after, more questions emerged about the veracity of the stories told about some of the girls saved by AFESIP. Marks reported with Khy Sovuthy that the girl who had come to represent the struggle of trafficking in Cambodia and Mam’s work was lying.

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Long Pros has been held up an example of the terrifying world of sex trafficking. She was profiled in the New York Times by Nick Kristof and her story was told on the Oprah Winfrey show. She shared her story of being trafficked as a young age into sex work. The brutality of her experience is evident by a scared over eye that she said was stabbed when she was a teen for refusing to have sex with paying customers.

The gut-wrenching tale is not true, says her parents. Marks and Sovuthy went to speak with Pros’s two parents in October 2012. They said that the damage to her eye was caused by a non-malignant tumor that she developed at the age of seven. Medical records shared by Pros’s parents show that the tumor was removed when she was 13 years old. The doctors who performed the surgery even kept photographs showing the before and after the procedure, as well as the tumor itself.

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Marks’s continued reporting in Newsweek discusses the story of Pos and another woman associated with AFESIP, Meas Ratha. He found that the two girls were never sex slaves, rather their parents willingly brought the girls to be cared for by the organization. He also learned that Mam’s village residents and neighbors remember her living in the area and attending school from 1981 to 1987, a period in which Mam says she was a sex slave in a brothel following the forced marriage to a man in 1979 at the age of 14.

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As her story goes, the meeting of French biologist Pierre Legros, who eventually became her husband, in 1991 led her to leave Cambodia for three years. The two returned to Cambodia and founded AFEISP in 1996 to support victims of sex trafficking and put an end to the practice.

A similar scandal impacted the Central Asia Institute when it was reported that founder Greg Mortenson lied about his personal story. Journalist and donor Jon Krakauer investigated the organization’s work and found unused school buildings and that Mortenson was using public speaking engagements to enrich himself. The public outcry and investigation into the allegations led to a settlement agreement with Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute.

Much like Mortenson, Mam garnered public attention and accolades. She won the CNN Hero Award in 2006 and has since earned similar honors. Despite the public praise and fawning press attention, Mam was the focal point of criticisms about the work carried out by her organization. Some anti-trafficking advocates took issue with her support of brothel raids that arrest the girls forced into prostitution. They argue that it further stigmatizes the girls, making it harder for them to return to society.

“These young women need to be offered constructive therapy, alternative options, and transitional help into supportive communities. There are other great organizations in Cambodia that do a much better job at this,” said the KeoK’jay’s Blog.

The Somaly Mam Foundation issued a public statement in April, following pressure from Marks and others, that it was taking allegations against its founder and people associated seriously. It said that Mam was in support of the investigation. Her resignation following the Newsweek story and the continued investigation by the foundation means that the story is not over. It once again raises questions about the practice of storytelling in charitable work.

Read Marks’s reporting on Mam and her organization for the Cambodia Daily here.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.

  • In some way one can’t help but wonder if Somaly Mam knew exactly what she was doing? Distorting reality, cajoling ever more abundant celebrity galas for her cause (I know i was there) and making all of us in the room feel good about a cause that no one in their right mind could refuse support, especially foundations, celebrities and corporates desperate to be seen doing feel good things for society, and this was just too easy and Somaly must have known that as the money piled up and as did her legacy, until it didn’t ….

    http://scallywagandvagabond.com/2014/05/somaly-mam-resigns-sex-slavery-foundation-after-fraud-allegations/