Famous Anti-Sex Trafficking Activist Resigns After Falsehoods

By Lisa Anderson 29 May 2014

NEW YORK — Somaly Mam, one of the world’s best-known activists against sex trafficking, resigned Wednesday from the foundation she created after an investigation uncovered discrepancies in the shocking personal history she used to raise millions of dollars in funding around the world.

Gina Reiss-Wilchins, executive director of the seven-year-old Somaly Mam Foundation, which works primarily in Mam’s home country of Cambodia, issued a statement saying that Mam’s resignation came after an extensive two month investigation by the law firm Goodwin Procter LLP.

The statement didn’t provide details on the investigation’s findings but the law firm probed allegations of falsehoods in Mam’s autobiography, including assertions that she had been sold into sexual slavery at an early age and spent years in a brothel before escaping a life of prostitution.

Reiss-Wilchins said the foundation also was severing all ties with a woman named Somana, also known as Long Pros, an alleged victim of sex trafficking who claimed to have been rescued by Mam and then joined her in her work.

The law firm’s investigation raised questions about the veracity of Pros’ personal story—which she told on Oprah Winfrey’s popular television talk show and in the PBS documentary “Half the Sky”–that she had been kidnapped, sold to a brothel, tortured, forced to undergo abortions and had an eye gouged out by an abusive pimp before being saved by Mam.

The developments at the Somaly Mam Foundation came a week after a May 21 cover story in Newsweek titled “Somaly Mam: The Holy Saint (and Sinner) of Sex Trafficking.”  The subtitle was “Sex, Slavery & A Slippery Truth.”

Written by Simon Marks, a journalist who had been raising questions about Mam since 2012, the story provides a damning litany of falsehoods allegedly perpetrated by Mam and some of the women she claims to have rescued.

An Untrue Story

Although sometimes the dates varied in the telling, the core narrative of Mam’s  heartbreaking story, often delivered in public and contained in her 2005 autobiography “The Road of Lost Innocence,” is simple.

Mam, who believes she was born around 1970, claims that an abusive man she calls “Grandfather” found her as an orphan and turned her into a domestic slave around the time she was 9 years old. According to the Newsweek story, “He eventually sold her as a virgin to a Chinese merchant and then forced her to marry a violent soldier when she was just 14.  She was later sold to a brothel in Phnom Penh, where she recalls being tortured with electrodes hooked up to a car battery.”

Mam has said she stayed in the brothel for up to a decade before she met a French biologist named Pierre Legros in 1991 and left her life of prostitution.  She and Legros married and relocated to France before returning to Cambodia in 1994.

In 1996, Mam, Legros and a friend founded Agir Pour Les Femmes en Situation Précaire (AFESIP), which translates into Helping Women in Danger, an NGO devoted to fighting sex trafficking and caring for its victims.

After a France 2 documentary in 1998, Mam became a global celebrity and the recipient of numerous awards for the work her organization did.  In her statement, Reiss-Wilchins expressed the disappointment of the foundation over the current situation but noted, “We have touched the lives of over 100,000 women and girls. We have treated nearly 6,000 individuals at a free medical clinic in Phnom Penh’s red light district and engaged nearly 6,400 students in anti-trafficking activism.”

Much of the organization’s success stemmed from Mam’s charismatic presence and the lurid story she told of a childhood destroyed by sex trafficking.

However, the Newsweek article raises several questions about that story, questions the legal investigation apparently also uncovered.

For example, Mam claimed she was an orphan taken away by “Grandfather” and sold into sexual slavery and that she spent up to 10 years in a Phnom Penh brothel.  But, according to Newsweek interviews with childhood friends, teachers, neighbors and local officials in the village of Thloc Chhroy, where she grew up, the timeline doesn’t add up.

A former commune chief in the village said he remembers the day that Mam arrived there as a child in the company of both her parents. No one, not even a cousin of Mam’s mother, recalls ever seeing “Grandfather.”

A childhood friend, the former director of the local high school, the current commune chief and his two predecessors all recall Mam attending village elementary and high schools between 1981 and 1987, when she would have been 11 to 17-years-old.

Mam herself has delivered various accounts of when she was sold into sexual slavery, Newsweek reported. Speaking at the White House in 2012, she said she was sold into slavery at the age of 9 or 10 and spent 10 years in the brothel.  On “The Tyra Banks Show” she said she spent four or five years in the brothel and her published autobiography says she was trafficked when she was about 16 years old.

There are other discrepancies. In 2012, Newsweek said, Mam admitted lying in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in which she claimed eight girls she had rescued from sex traffickers were killed in 2004 by the Cambodian army after a raid on her shelter for victims.

Rights workers and police officials, including the former head of the government’s anti-human trafficking department, have denied claims by Mam that traffickers kidnapped her 14-year-old daughter in 2006 in retaliation for Mam’s work and videotaped the girl being gang-raped. Mam’s ex-husband Pierre Legros and Aarti Kapoor, a former legal adviser to AFESIP, both say the girl was not kidnapped but ran away with her boyfriend.

As for Long Pros, also known as Somana and profiled by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in 2009, Newsweek found she had never been a victim of sex trafficking.  Her family and medical records also show that her eye was not gouged out by an angry pimp but operated on by a surgeon for removal of a non-malignant tumor when she was 13.

Pros came to AFESIP not as a sex trafficking survivor but after the then-director of Cambodia’s Takeo Eye Hospital asked if the organization would admit Pros to one of its vocational programs.

In her statement, Reiss-Wilchins said that although the foundation will remove Pros from any official affiliation with the organization, it “will help her to transition into the next phase of her life.”

Somaly Mam declined to be interviewed for the Newsweek article and issued no statement on Wednesday.