In Somaly Mam Scandal Lies a Question of Responsibility

I spent a year volunteering in Cambodia in 2007 and 2008 and many months working at Afesip, an NGO working with trafficked women and girls. I was impressed by the tireless work Afesip carried out for young marginalized girls and women in Cambodia. I saw first-hand the difference their interventions made, not only to women and girls but also to the wider family networks and the broader community. An important strength of Afesip was its grassroots nature, local knowledge and ability to work with women and girls across Cambodia.

I returned to the U.K. to embark upon a master’s degree in International Development Studies and undertook field research into reintegration opportunities for Afesip residents in Cambodia. In my thesis in 2009, I observed that “the strength and determination of Afesip’s founder, Somaly Mam, has been a determining factor for Afesip’s survival and in raising the issue of trafficking nationally and internationally.”

The global financial crisis in 2008 and a lack of government commitment to tackling the cause, led to a shortfall of funding for Afesip’s core services. In an attempt to secure Afesip’s future funding and to enable these services to continue and expand, Mam aligned herself with some U.S. supporters to set up the Somaly Mam Foundation (SMF). While the establishment of SMF initially appeared to have beneficial effects, such as increased funding and profile raising of trafficking in Cambodia, this relationship could not be regarded as benign or apolitical.

Power Dynamics

In my research of 2009, I suggested that “the relationship of SMF to Afesip must be considered within the context of the hegemonic relationship which can exist between the developed world to the developing, and more specifically from the U.S. to Cambodia. It can be argued that the increased funding opportunities the relationship with SMF enables also brings its own burdens in relation to power and decision-making which could have far reaching implications for Afesip in the future.”

It is with a heavy heart that I have witnessed what has now unfolded between SMF and Afesip. The relationship between these two organizations has evolved in a way that may not be surprising considering the unequal power dynamic that often dictates the direction of much development work.

Following an investigation commissioned by SMF and the publication of an article by Newsweek in May 2014, Somaly Mam left SMF. The damning piece, questioning the validity of her stories, featured across the international stage with extensive media coverage of her very public humiliation.

I have met Somaly Mam on a number of occasions and have seen first hand the inspiration she has been to thousands of vulnerable young Khmer girls and women. I would suggest her very presence and motivational words have provided comfort and hope to those whose lives often felt hopeless.

Women in Jeopardy

SMF has openly admitted to using a law firm to conduct a third-party investigation into allegations concerning the personal history of Somaly Mam. The question that springs to my mind is “Why?”

In a world where sexual exploitation, gender inequality and abject poverty remain prevalent, why would a charity allocate scarce resources to paying lawyers to investigate a woman who has devoted her life to improving the lives of thousands of children and young women?

One might ask why they chose this option over allocating those same resources to investigating the traffickers in Cambodia. There appears a certain irony that the very people who strode into Cambodia approximately seven years ago vowing to do something to help “save them” are now the very people who could potentially have brought Somaly Mam and possibly Afesip to their knees.

When SMF first made its public statement on its website about Somaly Mam, it also clearly stated that it would continue to support Afesip Cambodia. Gina Reiss-Wilchins, SMF executive director, said: “We look forward to moving past these events and focusing all of our energies on this vital work, ensuring that the hundreds of women and girls that are currently being served in our grant partner Afesip’s three centers for recovery and rehabilitation, receive the care that they so desperately need.” However, shortly after this pledge, SMF withdrew its funding to Afesip without any notice.

This action leaves over 150 women and girls within Afesip shelters without any security for their future, more than 10,000 women’s and girls’ access to medical, legal and outreach services in jeopardy, more than 100 staff potentially without employment and an organization that has been at the forefront of counter-trafficking work in Cambodia for many years without any sense of what the future might hold.

While I am not party to all the facts related to the demise of the relationship between SMF, Somaly Mam and Afesip, what is most concerning is that contractual agreements can seemingly be broken with such ease. In an environment where the media and general public seem to crave the “victim story,” which can include the details of sexual and physical abuse, there is increasing pressure on NGOs and activists to provide these stories. It is vital that international donors and media consider the impact of such sensationalized approaches. There is a very real risk that such approaches lead to further exploitation.

Validity vs. Vulnerability

Anyone who has spent any amount of time in Cambodia will know that gender inequality and poverty are rife. Rigidly held definitions, such as “trafficking” or “orphans” are not always as clear cut as people would like. If we visited the care system of any developed country throughout the world we would find that a large number of children in state care are not orphans. They are placed in orphanages/care homes because their parents are unable to provide for them. The issues and arguments, therefore, of their “true” orphan status is nebulous; their plight of destitution, vulnerability and need, however, is not. It is this perspective and principal that should be applied to the plight, welfare and future of Afesip’s residents.

While SMF has become embroiled in its very public argument about the validity of Somaly Mam’s story, the women and girls in Afesip’s care seem to have been forgotten. The consequences of SMF’s abrupt withdrawal of funds from Afesip could have catastrophic consequences.

This raises the question as to what level of responsibility and accountability international donor agencies, such as SMF, should have, and what happens when it all goes wrong. Shouldn’t donors shoulder some of the responsibility, rather than try to extricate themselves if things become difficult or blurred?

Another very concerning aspect of this story is that when a key donor decides to withdraw its funding from a grassroots organization, it has the funds, resources and expertise to present its position—and yet this position is often denied to the local organization that may have no such resources, thus leaving a very one-sided view. It is vital that grassroots organizations are given a voice and that a balanced picture can then be seen. A number of points and objections have been raised by Afesip to SMF, questioning the manner in which their funding was withdrawn. To date, these points and objections have remained unanswered.

An organization such as SMF —based in the U.S.—can seemingly drop an organization such as Afesip and move on to ply its trade elsewhere. Yet where is the accountability for SMF? Should it be allowed to rebrand and move onto “supporting” another charity in the developing world without redress? Should its actions go unchecked? What happens to the funds raised for the work of Afesip or in the name of Somaly Mam?

Gill Herd is the chair of Schools for Children of Cambodia.

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