As the dust settles following the resignation of Somaly Mam as president of her eponymous foundation last week, the focus among anti-human trafficking groups is shifting to the possible fallout the scandal may have wrought on the reputation of the sector.
Ms. Mam’s resignation came after a Newsweek magazine story exposed lies Ms. Mam had told about her personal history, as well as that of young women in her foundation’s care. Before the Newsweek story, which was written by former Cambodia Daily executive editor Simon Marks, the Somaly Mam Foundation ordered an independent investigation into reports published in this newspaper that Ms. Mam had helped fabricate the horror stories of girls under her care.
But while the organization continues to remain silent on the implications of the investigation and Ms. Mam’s resignation, a number of Cambodia-based NGOs said this week that they are worried about the impact on their work.
Samleang Seila, country director of Action Pour les Enfants (APLE), an organization working to prevent sexual abuse of children, said he is concerned that the incident could affect the reputation of NGOs that continue to work in the rescue sector.
“It would be sending a very confusing message about human trafficking in Cambodia and the number of victims and who the victims are,” he said.
“It might create confusion about the support for those victims, because people would think again whether some of the clients of the organizations and foundations are real victims or not and that could potentially undermine support for the real victims, because donors might withdraw support.”
These concerns were shared by Kong Sokhoeun, executive director of End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking (Ecpat), who said that donor trust may have been irretrievably lost.
“In terms of funding, previously, we used to get funding from SMF,” he said. “But in my personal opinion, I think that some donors will be not trusting to provide money to the SMF and then they cannot provide to us.”
For years, questions have also been raised with regard to the scale of the human-trafficking problem in Cambodia. The number of people affected fluctuates between the thousands and the hundreds of thousands.
Data compiled in 2008 by Thomas Steinfatt, a professor of statistics at the University of Miami, estimated the number of trafficking victims in Cambodia to be 1,058.
Speaking by telephone from the U.S. on Wednesday, he said those numbers remain accurate. Still, he said, the issue of human trafficking should be taken seriously. In fact, he said, it is more imperative than ever to analyze how funding intended to help victims is actually used.
“There clearly is a problem with human trafficking,” he said. “If you or I were held against our will, that’s trafficking, and this is a huge problem. It doesn’t depend on the number of victims, but that there are victims.”
As for the future of the fight against human trafficking, Professor Steinfatt—who describes Ms. Mam as being “as corrupt a person as you can possibly find”—said he hopes that “people who say they are interested in rescuing people will actually do this.”
Ms. Mam’s uncle, Pen Chhun Heng, said last week that he regretted the way her tenure at SMF ended, and that he believed there might have been “someone there who became jealous of her” and wanted to “damage her reputation.”
But Ms. Mam’s direct involvement in her own undoing has now been widely reported, and the ensuing scandal has underscored unethical practices sometimes used to secure funding for the sector.
In Ms. Mam’s case, she allegedly lied about the back-stories of at least two young women, and coached them to peddle these lies to international media. Many of the details in her autobiography, “The Road of Lost Innocence,” were also found to have been fabricated, along with claims she made during a speech before the U.N. General Assembly.
As her celebrity increased, donations to the Somaly Mam Foundation saw a parallel rise. In 2008, spending by the foundation was $348,283, according to financial reports filed with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. By 2011, spending had increased to $3.53 million. Ms. Mam, who earned nothing from the foundation in 2008, earned $85,000 in 2009, $96,000 in 2010 and $125,642 in 2011.
Following Ms. Mam’s fall from grace, those working in the human trafficking sector would do well to undertake a measure of self-examination, said Helen Sworn, the founder of Chab Dai, a coalition of 58 NGOs working to end sexual abuse and human trafficking.
“It became a celebrity movement not focused on the complexities of the movement,” she said Wednesday. “We moved away from a human rights framework into a hero framework. That is my greatest sadness…it’s not the right thing to do.”
The focus now, she said, should be on assessing the integrity of programs and acknowledging a sense of perspective lost in the midst of the lionizing of Ms. Mam.
“It’s the savior complex,” she said. “We have to go beyond that.”