Somaly Mam has resigned as head of the Somaly Mam Foundation following a Newsweek expose. But who is the activist and what has she done?
Anti-sex trafficking activist Somaly Mam has been accused by Newsweek of lying about her childhood and inventing sob stories to attract attention for her charity.
Somaly Mam, pictured left, at the Somaly Mam Foundation Gala in 2012
Somaly Mam is a Cambodian human rights advocate and author. In her 2007 memoir Mam detailed her childhood, claiming she was born in a village in Cambodia before being sold into sex slavery by her “grandfather.” She then spent 10 years trapped in the Southeast Asian sex industry before managing to escape in her 20s. Mam claims she doesn’t know exactly how old she was as she has no documents relating to her birth. She gives her birth year as either 1970 or 1971.
She married a French man named Pierre Legros in 1993, to whom she was married until 2008. The pair began a family, but Mam felt she needed to help other girls who may have found themselves in the same situation to her and returned to Cambodia to set up Acting for Women in Distressing Situations (or Afesip, for its French acronym). The charity aimed to help women in Cambodia an Laos who have been forced into prostitution against their will.
With Afesip, Mam gained global recognition although over the years her own story has been dogged by doubts. In 2006 Mam claimed that her daughter with Legros had been abducted by human traffickers in retaliation for her work. She originally mentioned this to Mariane Pearl in an article for Glamour magazine, later reiterating the story in a UN speech. Her ex-husband came forward to dispute her story, claiming their daughter had actually run away from home with a boyfriend. He added he was doing this to protect his daughter’s privacy and to stop her from being used as a “marketing” ploy for her mother’s foundation.
Meas Ratha, a woman who was initially thought to have been helped by the foundation, also came forward to dispute Mam’s story. Ratha has appeared on a French primetime show alongside Mam in 1998, where she was detailed her personal experience of sex slavery. The story had helped to propel Afesip into the global eye, although Ratha later claimed that her entire story had been fabricated by Mam.
Somaly Mam, pictured with actress AnnaLynne McCord, has done a lot of good despite recent revelations
Other “victim” stories began to show signs of fabrication. In 2012 Cambodia Daily interviewed a couple who claimed their daughter, who Mam had revealed in a New York Times article as a sex slave whose eye had been stabbed out by a customer, had in fact lost her eye due to a non-malignant tumor and had never been involved in sex slavery.
Following the recent Newsweek expose detailed Mam’s alleged fabrications she has resigned from her foundation. It wouldn't be the first time that this tactic has been used to raise awareness for a good cause and doesn't diminish the fact that over 100,000 girls have been helped by the foundation.
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