Somaly Mam, a prominent anti-sex-trafficking activist whose back-story as a sex slave has been the center of controversy after it was exposed as a fabrication, has resigned from the organization that bears her name.
Ms. Mam’s resignation comes just days after a Newsweek magazine story exposed the lies, and months after The Cambodia Daily revealed inconsistencies in Ms. Mam’s biography and false claims she has made about supposedly trafficked girls.
“We have accepted Somaly’s resignation effective immediately,” reads a statement posted on the Somaly Mam Foundation’s website on Wednesday by its executive director, Gina Reiss-Wilchins.
The statement says that in March, the foundation retained the U.S.-based law firm Goodwin Procter to conduct an independent, third-party investigation into allegations concerning the personal history of Ms. Mam as well as the story of one of the foundation’s symbols of sex slavery, Long Pros.
“We are permanently removing Ms. Pros from any affiliation with the organization or our grant partner, but will help her to transition into the next phase of her life,” the statement says.
“While we are extremely saddened by this news, we remain grateful to Somaly’s work over the past two decades and for helping to build a foundation that has served thousands of women and girls, and has raised critical awareness of the nearly 21 million individuals who are currently enslaved today,” it continues.
Since she co-founded the Somaly Mam Foundation in 2007, Ms. Mam has risen to stardom with her tale as a former sex slave.
In 2009, she was ranked among Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the category of heroes and icons. In 2011, she was placed on The Guardian newspaper’s list of the world’s top 100 women.
She has also built a Rolodex of celebrities and politicians who championed her cause and helped raise millions for the foundation.
The foundation’s board of directors and global advisory board includes Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook; actresses Susan Sarandon and Daryl Hannah; and U.S. ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues Melanne Verveer.
Ms. Mam co-founded the Somaly Mam Foundation with the help of two U.S. Air Force Academy graduates as a way to raise funds for the work being done by Ms. Mam’s Phnom Penh-based organization Agir pour les femmes en situation precaire (Afesip) and five other sex trafficking organizations.
The statement says the foundation will continue to work with Afesip, which Ms. Mam established in 1996.
“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, and that we safeguard their identities and privacy to every extent possible,” it says.
Ly Monirath, director of the Afesip center in Siem Reap province, said Ms. Mam resigned last year from her position at Afesip.
“She resigned from her position as executive director. They [donors] did not want her to have two positions at the same time, as she was the president of the Somaly Mam Foundation in the U.S.,” he said.
Ms. Mam’s story began to publicly unravel in April 2012 when she said during a U.N. meeting on human trafficking in New York that the Cambodian army killed eight girls after a raid on Afesip’s center in Phnom Penh in 2004.
Shortly after, Cambodian authorities said Ms. Mam’s story was not true, while the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Phnom Penh said there was no evidence of such killings.
In the two years that followed, more evidence began to pile up against Ms. Mam, culminating with the Newsweek cover story published last week detailing numerous inconsistencies and falsehoods in Ms. Mam’s story that she was abused and sold into slavery.
The story, written by an editor for The Cambodia Daily, was based on a number of investigations published in this newspaper since 2012 that revealed fabrications in Ms. Mam’s story as well as stories told by Ms. Mam to bolster her foundation’s fundraising efforts.
In October 2012, for example, Ms. Pros’ story of imprisonment as a young teenager at a brothel in Phnom Penh—-where she was supposedly held as a sex slave and mutilated at the hands of the owner when she refused to have sex with customers—was found to be false.
Ms. Pros’ parents denied that their daughter had ever been a victim of human trafficking, had ever been enslaved in a brothel, or had lost her right eye at the hands of a brothel owner. They said Ms. Pros lost her eye as the result of a non-malignant tumor that had developed when she was just seven years old.
Ms. Pros’ father, Long Hon, declined to comment Thursday on the Somaly Mam Foundation’s separation with his daughter.
“I don’t dare comment about Mam Somaly’s resignation because I don’t know a lot of details about her organization,” he said.
In a similar case, an investigation in October revealed another sex slave story was totally fabricated.
Meas Ratha told The Cambodia Daily that she was selected by Ms. Mam to appear on a French television channel in 1998 after undergoing rehearsals with a group of other girls to falsely recount how she was sold to a brothel owner in Phnom Penh.
Following the report, Ms. Ratha said she was approached by a member of the Somaly Mam Foundation and told not to speak with the media.
Relatives of Ms. Mam who still live in Cambodia declined to comment Thursday.
The Cambodia Daily’s investigation into Somaly Mam
© 2014, Joshua Wilwohl. All rights reserved.