A Year On, Somaly Mam Scandal Still Raises Questions

Text by Dene-Hern Chen
Photo by Uli Bartels

Phnom Penh, Cambodia – More than a year after Newsweek’s cover story on Somaly Mam, organisations within the anti-human trafficking sector are still grappling with its effects.

Published last May under the damning title “Somaly Mam: The Holy Saint (and Sinner) of Sex Trafficking,” Newsweek raised questions about her biography, fundraising tactics, and the veracity of stories from young girls rescued by her organisation, Agir Pour Les Femmes en Situation Precaire (AFESIP; in English, it translates to “Helping Women in Dangerous Situations.”) These allegations were damaging given the clout Somaly has as an international icon. Her former life as a prostitute — coupled with her charismatic persona as the champion of young girls rescued from a life of sex slavery — was a compelling narrative that garnered her influential supporters and, along with it, millions in donor funding.

While local media – most notably The Cambodia Daily – had previously raised questions about Somaly’s ever-changing stories, the Newsweek article made it impossible for the international community to ignore. Executives within her eponymous foundation soon pushed her to resign in light of its own independent investigation into her past – one that has not been made public.

The Somaly Mam effect reverberated across the anti-human trafficking sector. As some NGOs worried about how the allegations against a single personality could tarnish donors’ trust, the media raised concerns about the lack of oversight in ensuring that victims are not further exploited for fundraising purposes. Think pieces abounded over the problematic relationship between donor and NGO, wherein the most sensational stories are often the causes that attract attention and funding.

Mom Sokchar, programme manager at anti-human trafficking NGO Legal Support for Women and Children, said the real issues can get buried under the scandal itself, making it challenging for organisations to address the mundane realities of feeding, housing and educating young women when it is caught up in trying to reassure donors of their credibility.

“It is sometimes hard for the whole sector to come back to the work of anti-trafficking because it has created a picture in the sector, especially for those NGOs who have worked to combat human trafficking in Cambodia,” said Sokchar, adding that a “total investigation” on the allegations against Somaly needs to be conducted and made public.

The loss of trust in the entire sector is a legitimate fear, and certainly one the US government itself was aware of, according to a recent Phnom Penh Post article. Embassy cables sent to the State Department in 2012 showed that international anti-human trafficking groups had decided to remain silent on financial concerns at AFESIP because they were worried that donors would not be able to separate it from other organisations that were “actually good.” The cables also revealed that members of the sector raised doubts to the embassy about the psychological and medical care provided to victims, which they considered inadequate especially given AFESIP’s funds. Yet the US embassy still believed that Somaly served as a “positive force” in the anti-trafficking effort.

A State Department official declined to comment on Catalyst Asia’s queries about whether these concerns should have been investigated given her financial pull with US donors, saying in an email that it “does not have an opinion regarding allegations of financial impropriety.”

The official added that the US Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons had previously awarded grants to AFESIP in 2007, 2008 and 2009 totaling more than US$900,000, which was applied for through a competitive process. “The Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons monitored funding from its prior grant to AFESIP and does not have any concerns about misuse of the State Department funds.”

Today, Somaly’s new foundation – aptly named The New Somaly Mam Foundation – is focused more on rehabilitation of victims instead of rescue. Executive director Rigmor Schneider said that while their programmes have been downsized due to funding shortfalls, the foundation is still working with young women to ensure they have skills for financial independence.

“Somaly stands by her story that she has told the truth as she remembers it,” Schneider said in the email, adding that every person and organisation “deserves the right to be able to defend itself against false accusations.”

Questions about self-governance posed to various anti-human trafficking organisations, including The New Somaly Mam Foundation, were met with responses about how detailed financial reports were provided to donors. Some require periodic audits after a project has been instated, while certain organisations — including AFESIP, said Schneider – hire independent firms for an annual audit as an additional measure.

Yet the issues raised by the scandal – such as allegations of Mam coaching abused women before they spoke to the media; the parading of young victims in front of reporters which could hurt their anonymity as well as set back psychological recovery; the “truth” behind memories associated with traumatic events, which are often indeterminable – are tougher to address.

Pok Panha Vichetr, executive director of Cambodian Women Crisis Center, said that most NGOs in Cambodia are governed by an umbrella group, Cooperation Committee of Cambodia, which awards a certificate signifying that financial standards have been met. Yet this does not fully address the less tangible problems, which might arise from an individual’s intentions and are thus tougher to determine, she said.

“We would have something [like the CCC certificate] to prove our professionalism and good governance. But in terms of scandal or what affects the donors, nobody can control that,” Panha Vichetr said. “How can you control the person?”

Often, the actions of a few individuals within an organisation can “trump those of their stated mandates,” said Ou Virak, an independent analyst who was formerly the president of prominent local rights group Cambodian Center for Human Rights.

NGOs in Cambodia basically have “a free reign,” he said, and many groups have been known to fake receipts and spending on non-existent cases, or take in children from families and claim that they are orphans. One way to combat this is to apply transparency in every aspect of the organisation.

“Their policies, procedures are all need to be scrutinised by the media as well as the general public,” Virak said. “All information need to be made public, except for when it is related to individual victims.”

At the end of the day, shedding light on such practices would be a good thing for the sector, he added.

“In the long term, I think it is a valuable lesson for all of us and it would strengthen the sector as more of the credible and legitimate ones will prevail and will eventually get the funding they need,” Virak said.

***

Note: Catalyst Asia is a content platform that is produced and owned by the Institute for Societal Leadership (ISL). At Catalyst Asia, we believe that real life can only be captured at a particular moment in time. Everything you read here is accurate at the point in which it was recorded. We do not expect details to stay the same and we hope that they don’t. No part of this publication may be reproduced without written permission from the Institute for Societal Leadership at the Singapore Management University Administration Building located at 81 Victoria Street Singapore 188065. To get in touch, please drop us a line at serenechen@smu.edu.sg.