Somaly Mam’s Residents Say They Are Free to Go

Residents of a Phnom Penh sex worker rehabilitation center dismissed yesterday accusations made by the Asian Pacific Network of Sex Workers earlier this week that they were being held against their will.

Trafficking victims living at the center run in Dangkao district’s Prey Sar commune by Agir Pour les Femmes en Situation Precaire, or Afesip, said yesterday that, far from being victimized by the NGO, which is run by the famed anti-sex trafficking activist Somaly Mam, they have been protected.

APNSW had released late last month a music video depicting Ms Mam as a jailer and accused her on Monday of working against sex workers’ rights–an accusation she brushed off as “foolish.”

“At first when I came to the center, I did not want to stay…but later on after I spent time here they treated me with affection so I changed my mind,” said 20-year-old Sa Ma Na yesterday during an interview supervised by a center staff member.

Afesip staff would not allow unsupervised interviews with reporters.

Ms Ma Na told the harrowing story of how she came to live at the center: Taken from Svay Rieng province, she was forced into sex work in Phnom Penh, became pregnant by a client and then was made to have an abortion before police took custody of her.

“Without this place, who would help me?” asked Ms Ma Na, who has no right eye because of a wound she suffered while being beaten by one of her captors became infected.

“Some women come for only a week or a month before they leave,” said Hoem Chai Voeurn, who has lived at the center for two years since being taken by police from a brothel where she estimated that she serviced 13 clients a day for almost nine years. “The center manager makes them sign a letter saying they want to leave before they go.”

At the rehab center, a central courtyard surrounded by dorms, classrooms and working areas. A low barbed wire fence rings the compound.

According to APNSW policy director Andrew Hunter, women at the center told members of his organization that “for the first few days they had been locked in a room.”

Mr Hunter added Monday that the star-studded circle of women’s rights advocates that Ms Mam works with internationally often hurt sex worker’s rights by conflating prostitutes with trafficked people.

“The group Mam works with internationally called the Coalition Against the Trafficking of Women was responsible for writing the Anti-Prostitution Loyalty Oath that helped funnel money from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief away from sex workers rights organizations,” said Mr Hunter, adding the money should have gone to helping sex workers attain means of avoiding HIV infection.

The US Embassy said yesterday it could not yet say if any Cambodian organization had signed the APLO, which required that any organization receiving Pepfar funding have “a policy explicitly opposing prostitution and sex trafficking.” Ms Mam has told media outlets in the past that Afesip has received US government funding.

Afesip came to public attention in 2004 when 90 women and children under the NGO’s care–84 of whom had been taken the day before from a brothel being run at the Chai Hour II hotel–were re-abducted from the rehabilitation facility and returned to the hotel.


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