The Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers released a stinging and unusual critique of famed Cambodian anti-trafficking activist Somaly Mam in late September: an online karaoke music video animated with dolls that accuses her organization of detaining sex workers against their will.
The video, broadcast on the Internet and dubbed “Bad Rehab,” re-imagines the tune “Bad Romance” by the singer Lady Gaga as the chronicle of a sex worker detained against her will in a rehabilitation center run by Ms Mam’s NGO Acting for Women in Distressing Situations, best known as AFESIP.
Ms Mam said yesterday that the accusations made in the video–that she keeps sex workers against their will and exposes them to police brutality–represented a “misunderstanding” of her work.
Andrew Hunter, policy director of the APNSW, said yesterday that Ms Mam was targeted in the karaoke video because her NGO worked against sex worker’s rights and because karaoke movies empowered the sex worker unions across the region which his group represents, many of which count karaoke parlor workers among their members.
“She has allied herself with the section of the women’s movement that…has the openly stated goal of abolishing prostitution and destroying the sex workers right’s movement,” said Mr Hunter. “That is why she is a target.”
By supporting Cambodia’s anti-human trafficking law, which calls for the prosecution of sex workers, Mr Hunter said Ms Mam had jeopardized their safety. Mr Hunter added that girls who had been sent to Ms Mam’s rehabilitation centers had told APNSW they were not allowed to leave.
“I do not mean to make a direct accusation but rehabilitation centers are often given funds based on the lengths of stay of sex workers,” said Mr Hunter.
According to Mr Hunter, a Human Rights Watch report released in July that said “two NGO-run shelters had kept adult sex workers against their will for periods of time ranging from several hours to a few days” specifically named AFESIP when he read it in draft form.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asian division, declined yesterday to comment on the report’s original language.
“I try to help the girls who need me, not the girls who do not want it,” Ms Mam said yesterday, adding that having faced similar accusations in the past, she “didn’t care” about the music video.
The “Bad Rehab” video shows a doll with Ms Mam’s face superimposed on its body, dragging chained sex workers behind her–a marked departure from the crusader described by Angelina Jolie in Time Magazine’s 2009 list of the world’s most influential people.
Still, an HIV-positive Phnom Penh sex worker in a videotaped APNSW interview said she decided it would be better to go to the Phnom Penh Municipal Social Affairs Center, which Human Rights Watch claimed in its reports holds workers involuntarily, than to AFESIP, after she was arrested.
“They want to send me to AFESIP,” the girl said. “But I said no.”