Somaly Mam has resigned from her own foundation on the heels of allegations that she fabricated much of her life story. Though she is known worldwide as a devout warrior in the battle against sex trafficking, an article in Newsweek called her out for claiming that she herself was a victim of the nefarious sex trade.
According to the tale she told at the White House, Mam originally from Cambodia, said she was around nine years old when she was sold into the sex slave trade and lived in a brothel for 10 years. After an investigation was launched by The Cambodia Daily, what turned out to be various stories told by Mam began to crumble.
Previously, Mam claimed she was sold in a brothel to a man she called Grandfather. He made her his domestic slave when she was still quite young. Grandfather sold her for sex, touting her virginity, to a merchant from China. She then married a soldier, under duress, when she was 14 years old. Another version, from her book, said that she was 16 years old when her experiences with sex trafficking began.
Through interviews conducted in a village called Thloc Chhroy, the truth surfaced. Newsweek printed quotes from teachers and acquaintances of Mam that say she grew up in that village where, according to an old friend, she lived until she earned her diploma for high school. No one could recall her being raised by anyone called Grandfather.
The article in Newsweek also raised concerns regarding the background stories of some of the women who had been helped by the Somaly Mam Foundation. Some have gone so far as to question the use of young victim’s stories and faces to shine a spotlight on the horrifying experiences that occur in the sex trafficking trade. A French advisor to Mam’s group, Pierre Fallavier, communicated to The Cambodia Daily regarding Mam’s use of composite portraits of victims. He explains that it is actually a common practice amongst aid organizations. They essentially match a harrowing story with an appealing face in order to attract more donors.
Fallavier recalls advising Mam to send journalists away because they were just looking for sensational stories about sex and violence to exploit for sales of their newspapers and magazines. The fact that Mam is quite beautiful and a hero to boot, made the stories that much more appealing. The journalists also came with potential donors.
Pierre Legros is Mam’s ex-husband and the co-founder of her foundation. He blames the international development aid system and the non-profit sector for financially inspiring groups like Mam has to exaggerate, inflate and distort. He said that he has done a variety of work with many organizations and has seen the same scenario play out each time. According to Legros, “If you have no story, you don’t have money.”
Mam eventually became somewhat of a celebrity through all her efforts to combat sex trafficking. She drew millions of dollars to her foundation and found that notable figures like, Queen Sofia of Spain, Susan Sarandon, Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook) and Oprah Winfrey were all on board to help her. Sarandon and Sandberg both sit on the Somaly Mam Foundation’s Advisory Board. Some of the foundation’s achievements in 2012 include raising $2.8 million, making contact with 17,000 victims of the sex trade in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia and giving out 750,000 condoms.
Despite the recent discoveries regarding the truth of Somaly Mam’s past, the work being done is tremendous. It is curious that rather than stepping down from her post at her own foundation, Mam did not simply admit to the fabrications, give her truthful reasons for lying about her life and just keep on doing the good work. Resigning has given the impression that there is more to the story than what has already been revealed.
By Stacy Lamy