Somaly Mam, president of the Somaly Mam Foundation (SMF) has resigned amid intense scrutiny following a recent article in Newsweek magazine. The article alleges that Mam fabricated much of her own survivor story as well as coerced two of ‘her [rescued] girls’ to relay fabricated accounts of graphic violence and sexual slavery for publicity purposes.
The SMF released a statement shortly after the Newsweek cover article broke on 21 May stating that: “the Foundation is taking these matters with the utmost seriousness and has previously launched an independent, third party investigation to further examine these claims.”
An independent, third party investigation into the claims made against Somaly Mam was launched by the senior management of SMF in March this year. According to a statement on the resignation of Mam, it was the result of the investigation that prompted SMF’s management to accept Mam’s resignation which she submitted to SMF in the days immediately after the Newsweek article was published. The statement also referred to one of the rescued girls, Long Pros, who had her survivor story fabricated by Mam, and said that: “we are permanently removing Ms. Pros from any affiliation with the organization or our grant partner, but will help her to transition into the next phase of her life.”
They also stated: “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.”
Somaly Mam has not been reached for comment since news of her resignation broke earlier in May.
Apart from the alleged fabrication of large parts of her own survivor story and that of at least two of ‘her [rescued] girls’, Mam has also faced serious criticism for effectively trapping the women her foundation has saved in the low-paid and dangerous garment industry of Cambodia. This isn’t the only perverse effect of Mam’s human rights crusade for victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation in Cambodia. One journalist who has spent years researching and working in Cambodia notes that much of the shift in US policy priorities from counterterrorism to anti-human trafficking over the last decade or so can be traced back to Mam.
The irony of course is that Mam’s anti-trafficking efforts have led to policies and legislation implemented to supposedly liberate women from sexual exploitation but in fact has often led to brutal crackdowns on sex work establishments. The rehabilitation and reintegration programmes that anti-trafficking NGOs (including those run by Mam) manage train women in the garment trade for work in the garment factories in Cambodia. Wages are two-thirds below the poverty line and working conditions are exploitative in the garment industry. Consequently, the rehabilitation and reintegration programmes confine women to exploitative labour conditions in the Cambodian garment industry.