Months after announcing the resignation of its founder and promising to start afresh to continue its “vital work” protecting vulnerable girls in Cambodia, the U.S.-based Somaly Mam Foundation (SMF) announced Saturday that it has ceased operations, telling supporters to turn to other organizations to help the fight against sex trafficking and slavery.
In June—following a damning Newsweek expose revealing fabrications in Somaly Mam’s backstory as a sex slave, and her coaching of girls under her care to lie about their own histories of sexual abuse—SMF announced her exit from the organization, but promised to keep fighting trafficking.
“We look forward to moving past these events and focusing all of our energies on this vital work,” the June statement said, adding that SMF would be “rebranding, renaming & relaunching.”
But on Saturday, the organization said in a statement signed by its “former board of directors” that it had decided to close its doors, and would no longer be helping to raise money for organizations working to rescue and rehabilitate trafficked or abused girls.
“There are many outstanding organizations that share these values while dedicated to the eradication of trafficking and slavery,” statement says. “We decided that going forward, the right opportunity for our staff and our supporters would be to support those many great organizations. As of September 30, we officially ceased all operations, ended all grant funding, and permanently closed our doors.”
The announcement by SMF also comes a month after Ms. Mam, in an article in Marie Claire magazine, broke her silence regarding the reports of her lies, insisting she had “nothing to hide” about her past. On the same day the article was published, Scott Gorenstein, vice president of the New York-based public relations firm Jonathan Marder + Company, launched a public relations campaign on Ms. Mam’s behalf.
Neither Mr. Gorenstein nor SMF responded to requests for comment on the foundation’s shuttering.
After founding SMF in 2007 to raise funds for Afesip, the Cambodia-based anti-sex trafficking NGO co-founded by Ms. Mam, she used her story as a sex trafficking victim—as well as similar stories of girls under her care—to attract prominent donors, including U.S. business leaders and Hollywood stars.
SMF’s spending increased from $348,283 in 2008 to $3.53 million in 2011, according to financial reports filed with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service.
As donations increased, so too did the SMF executives’ salaries.
Bill Livermore, SMF’s former CEO, was paid $72,375 in 2009, $166,655 in 2010 and $149,580 in 2011. Ms. Mam’s own salary increased from $85,000 in 2009 to $125,642 in 2011.
Tony Posnett, the programming manager for Hagar International Cambodia, which supports trafficking victims, said the closing of SMF would inevitably be detrimental to anti-sex trafficking efforts in the country.
“What will be the outcome for the women and children [SMF supported]?” Mr. Posnett said. “Anything that reduces the supply of care is bad news for Cambodia and victims of trafficking.”
The fall of SMF should be a lesson to organizations working in the sector to be more careful with their fundraising tactics, according to Ros Sopheap, executive director of local NGO Gender and Development for Cambodia.
“This is a big lesson learned for all NGOs that we have to be clear and careful with the information you give out.” Ms. Sopheap said. “[Ms. Mam’s] story is sometimes black and sometimes white,” she said.
But Sebastien Marot, the executive director of Friends International, which works with at-risk Cambodian children, said the lesson was unlikely to sink in.
“How much trust is lost toward NGOs, that’s what I’m scared of,” Mr. Marot said.
“The risk is that someone will try to jump into the empty space to be the next Somaly Mam,” he said. “The donors and the public need that kind of hero…. She [wasn’t] the first one and she won’t be the last one.”
The Cambodia Daily’s investigation into Somaly Mam