Somaly Mam, a Cambodian woman internationally recognized for her work against sexual slavery has resigned from the foundation (www.somaly.org) she helped create in her own name, the Somaly Mam foundation following reports that she fabricated and distorted instances of her purported time as a sex slave, amongst other assertions.
Somaly Mam’s memoir, “The Road of Lost Innocence,” said she was abused and sold into prostitution as a child — one of several claims now being questioned
On the back of her efforts to help other women and girls brought into Cambodia’s sex slave industry, Somaly Mam’s foundation would along with U.S. government funding would receive wide society financial endorsement, where high society charity galas were organized on behalf of the charity. Noted backers included actress Susan Sarandon, Angelina Jolie, Meg Ryan, Lauren Bush, Hillary Clinton and Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg.
The foundation’s site lists cosmetics company Estee Lauder, finance firm Goldman Sachs and Hilton hotels as corporate sponsors.
Much of the organization’s success stemmed from Mam’s charismatic presence and the lurid story she told of a childhood destroyed by sex trafficking.
Upon Somaly Mam’s resignation, the foundation’s executive-director, Gina Reiss-Wilchins, told Mam’s resignation was accepted after the group was presented with the findings of a two-month investigation it had commissioned from a California-based law firm, Goodwin Procter. Details of the findings were not released.
‘While we are extremely saddened by this news, we remain grateful to Somaly’s work over the past two decades and for helping to build a foundation that has served thousands of women and girls, and has raised critical awareness of the nearly 21 million individuals who are currently enslaved today,’ Reiss-Wilchins said in the statement, which was posted on the foundation’s website.
Mam’s resignation followed a Newsweek cover story about long-questioned aspects of her story. In Cambodia, questions had been raised for several years, especially by the newspaper The Cambodia Daily.
Among the claims that had raised doubts were that her daughter had been kidnapped by traffickers seeking revenge on her, and that eight girls who had been seized from one of her group’s refuges in Cambodia in 2004 were murdered by the army there.
Colleagues of Mam told The Cambodia Daily the daughter had run away from home, and the newspaper reported that she herself retracted the story of the eight murdered girls, which she had related in a speech at the United Nations.
Among those who said she was untruthful were several colleagues and her French ex-husband, Pierre Legros, who helped found her original Cambodia-based organization, AFESIP, which is the French acronym for Acting for Women in Distressing Situations. The group, formed in 1996, says on its website that it operates in Cambodia and neighboring Laos to rescue girls and women from forced prostitution, while the Somaly Mam Foundation acts as its fund-raising arm.
In 2008, Mam was the co-winner of the $150,000 World’s Children’s Prize for the Rights of the Child, awarded by the Swedish Children’s World Association to recognize those who defend the rights of children. In 2006, she was honored as one of Glamour magazine’s women of the year.
The foundation was founded in 2007. Its announcement about Mam’s resignation said another Cambodian staffer whose story had been discredited was being fired.
Mam could not be reached for comment. Calls to her phone number in Cambodia went unanswered Thursday and her office in Cambodia said it did not know where she was. Can anyone guess why?
And then there was this reflection via the dailybeast that made me wonder: But this should be a wake-up call, an opportunity for people in the feminist and non-profit world to seriously consider some troubling trends that may hamper the long-term ability to enact change. Namely, there’s way too much emphasis being put on heroic figures overcoming adversity and too little attention paid to systems of oppression. In addition, there’s a serious problem of issues being highlighted not because they are the most pressing or widespread issues, but because they are the least likely to draw controversy that might run off wealthy celebrities who only want the safest causes to publicly support.