PHNOM PENH — Dueling depictions of Somaly Mam, the Cambodian activist who has campaigned against sex trafficking in her country and elsewhere, have splashed across large media outlets in the last six months. Mam, who contends she was a child prostitute, became a worldwide name when her story was written by The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who reported on her advocacy for vulnerable girls and women, coverage that was preceded and followed by similarly praising ones.
Her fame was just as quickly tarnished when it was unveiled that she had possibly exaggerated her life story as a victim of sexual abuse and sexual slavery. This supposed falsehood of hers was first reported in Newsweek, by Simon Marks in May. Days after the article appeared, a foundation in her name asked Mam, its president, to resign and to sign a letter acknowledging that she had “created and exaggerated stories about [her] life that were not true.”
Undeterred, Mam recently set up with friends a new foundation in the United States to keep up her anti-trafficking campaign. It is called the New Somaly Mam Fund: Voices for Change. The rise and fall — and possible revival — of Mam reveals how using celebrities to promote a humanitarian cause can create obfuscation if not damage if the veracity of a story that sounds profound may lack credibility.
Mam has continued her anti-trafficking work in Cambodia under the umbrella of Agir Pour Les Femmes en Situation Précaire (in English, Acting for Women in Distressing Situations, or Afesip), an organization she founded in 1996 with Pierre Legros, her husband at the time, and a third colleague to fight sex trafficking in the region. (The couple are no longer together and Legros is no longer part of Afesip.) The Somaly Mam Foundation was set up to raise funds for Afesip.
Having obtained a license in November to operate the new American-based foundation, Mam told PassBlue in an email interview that the license would allow her to further some of the work she had been doing through the former foundation, albeit on a smaller scale.
“There will be a greater emphasis on vocational and business training to insure that survivors can find good jobs or start independent businesses,” Mam said in the email. Afesip will use new money “to pay for the costs of the remaining rehabilitation centers, vocational training, formal education and scholarships, reintegration expenses, staffing and administrative expenses.”
Afesip has rehabilitation centers in several Cambodian provinces and helps 170 women and girls “victimized by human trafficking and sex slavery,” through various means, including legal and medical assistance, its website says. But its services have been set back by the Mam scandal, as its Phnom Penh clinic, which provided access to free contraceptives, HIV tests and counseling, closed because of the foundation’s financial collapse.
At least one major donor wants to know how her money was spent to Afesip, given its decline. From July to September 2014, for example, Afesip received $95,000 from Project Futures, a nonprofit group in Australia that raises money for Mam’s work in Cambodia. Stephanie Lorenzo, its chief executive, said she asked where the money she donated went, but she never received a response.
Mam addressed Lorenzo’s question in her email to PassBlue, saying, “The old foundation stopped funding” and “they left us with a three months debt plus a shortfall of several hundred thousand dollars . . . for the rest of the year.” The number of Afesip staff members has been cut from 106 to 57, with more layoffs expected in the near future. (Mam is unpaid.)
But Mam’s biggest struggle is to clear her name. In her email, she insisted that she had not lied about her childhood. “I have done nothing wrong and I DID NOT LIE. [Mam’s punctuation.] The damage that the old foundation and the stories have done is big. . . . It takes time to overcome the unfair stories,” she said.
The Cambodian government itself has changed its mind about her credibility. In October, Phay Siphan, the spokesman for the Council of Ministers, the government’s executive body, backtracked on comments he made earlier when he said Mam would not be allowed to operate another nonprofit group in Cambodia.
At first, the downfall of Mam and the foundation precipitated concern that other nonprofit groups working in Southeast Asia on anti-trafficking, which is big business in the region, would suffer withdrawal of donor money. Yet, that has not necessarily been the case.
George Blanchard, the director of the Vietnam branch of the Alliance Anti-Traffic, said the articles about Mam and the foundation’s closing did not affect the group’s work on the ground eradicating sexual exploitation of women. The alliance, which has its headquarters in Paris and has another office in Thailand, received $10,000 from the Somaly Mam Foundation in 2014, which is not enough, Blanchard said, to upset his budget. “However, I believe this type of story blemishes all the work smaller organizations do to fight against sex-trafficking.”
Using celebrity to promote a humanitarian cause can often play out in unexpected ways. For one, it can reduce the complexity of both the problem and its potential solutions to sound bites, wrote Dina Francesca Haynes, a professor at New England Law in Boston, in The Annals of the American Academy of Political Science and Social Science.
Celebrity can also be used to overlook details. In an interview for this article, Professor Haynes said that “What is interesting in the case of Somaly Mam is that donors did not want to look closely to see what she was doing. They wanted a ‘face’ to represent the cause and were willing to ask for little accountability from her in order to use her face. But at a certain point, if she really wanted to be assisting people, that should have been her focus.”
Professor Haynes said she thought Mam had gotten caught up in a public relations machine. “The public is also complicit for reading the easier messages and ignoring or not seeking out the more complex,” she said. “The public wants to hear that there is a simple solution to a complex problem. That buying a bracelet or donating money to an NGO without researching the work it actually does can have an impact. The media is happy to sell that message; it sells magazines or books or papers, but together those attitudes can actually harm the outcomes for the people they think they are helping.”
Junita Upadhyay, the deputy executive director of Ecpat International, a global network based in Bangkok that protects children against sex exploitation, also thought that the focus should stay on the humanitarian cause and not the personalities.
“It is important to raise awareness on human trafficking or sex trafficking, but any intervention should be based on solid evidence,” she said. ‘It is all about accountability, and it is important not to focus only on the personal stories of trauma and abuse of the victims but rather on the issue itself and the important roles that victims can play in addressing this issue.”