SOMALY MAM AND HER BATTLE AGAINST THE CAMBODIAN SEX INDUSTRY

SOMALY MAM

Somaly Mam is a former Cambodian sex worker who now helps sex workers in her home country and has become the global face of the anti-trafficking movement in Cambodia. Her house has been burned down. She's had her car jacked. Her daughter was kidnapped, drugged and raped. But still, sex trafficking survivor Somaly Mam says she would rather risk death than give up her work saving slaves in Cambodia.

David Montgomery wrote in the Washington Post, “For so long, silence equaled survival for Somaly Mam -- when she was raped in her Cambodian village at 12; forced to marry at 14; sold into a brothel in Phnom Penh at 16; raped, beaten and tortured more times than she can remember by the clients and pimps until she escaped that world at about 21. The ages are approximate. She doesn't know how old she is. ("Maybe 37. Maybe 38. Maybe younger [in 2008].") She never knew her parents in the deep mountain forest of her childhood, where she felt safe talking only to the trees. [Source: David Montgomery, Washington Post September 22, 2008]

Along the way, somehow she learned not to be silent. That is the most extraordinary part of her shocking life's journey, an achievement she still cannot fully explain. Her hard-earned ability to speak out has helped her rescue 4,000 girls and women from brothels in the last decade. It has helped her build one of the largest nongovernmental organizations in Cambodia, with 150 employees, sheltering 220 women and girls in that country, with more in shelters in Vietnam and Laos.

Book: “The Road of Lost Innocence by Somaly Mam (Spiegel & Grau, 2008). A portion of the proceeds from the book are donated to the Somaly Mam Foundation.

Early Life of Somaly Mam

Born to a tribal minority family in the Mondulkiri province of Cambodia, Somaly Mam began life in extreme poverty. With limited options as a severely marginalized ethnic group, and living in unimaginable despair, her family often resorted to desperate means to survive. Somaly doesn’t know her precise age because she has no information about when or where she was born. Nor does she know her mother. Her earliest memories are of working as a domestic servant for various families in Phnom Penh. Eventually, one of those families sold her to a brothel. [Source: Somaly Mam Foundation]

David Montgomery wrote in the Washington Post: “Somaly Mam was born in about 1970 or 1971 in a village inhabited by a dark-skinned mountain tribe that was scorned by the lowland Khmer. The upheaval of the Vietnam War was followed by the murderous strife of Pol Pot's dictatorship. Her parents disappeared, then so did her grandmother. She was a child on her own in a culture where children are "a kind of domestic livestock," she writes, and where "there is only one law for women: silence before rape and silence after." "I remember one day I have been raped by a man," she told the Washington Post. "I just want to run away home. I want to talk to people, have them to know. But when I need people to help me, no one help me. So I keep silence." [Source: David Montgomery, Washington Post September 22, 2008]

Jane Ciabattari wrote in the Washington Post: “An orphan, Mam spent her early years with her maternal grandmother in the forests of northeast Cambodia among the Phnong ethnic minority. Foraging in the woods, taking shelter with neighbors, she was safer than most during the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. But by age 9, she had become an indentured servant for an older man whom she called "grandfather." He took her to Vietnam and later sold her into prostitution to cover his gambling debts. [Source:Jane Ciabattari, Washington Post, November 2, 2008]

Somaly Mam and the Khmer Rouge

Angelina Jolie wrote in Time magazine: “Somaly Mam and Cambodia's Khmer Rouge regime were born around the same time — when the U.S. began secretly carpet bombing her country. The bombed villages became fertile ground for the Khmer Rouge's growth and Pol Pot's revolution.[Source: Angelina Jolie, Time magazine, April 30, 2009 #]

“By the time Mam was 5, the Khmer Rouge controlled Cambodia and had proceeded to kill 1.5 million people as Pol Pot implemented his radical form of communism. Torture, executions and forced labor were widespread. Families fled for safety, and massive internal displacement decimated Cambodian society in the years that followed. #

“Against this backdrop, 12-year-old Mam was sold into sexual slavery by a man who posed as her grandfather. She eventually ended up in a Phnom Penh brothel, beginning a decade of horrific rape and torture. She describes this period of her life simply: "I was dead. I had no affection for anyone." Terror is the weapon of choice for those who hold women in sexual bondage. They depend on their victims' being frozen with fear. Traffickers hope that with enough pain and degradation, women will simply accept their fate as inescapable.” #

Somaly Mam’s Experience in the Sex Industry

A confluence of dire circumstances led to Somaly being sold into sexual slavery at a very young age. Somaly was forced to work in a brothel along with other women and children for many years, and was brutalized and raped -- sometimes up to 10 times a day -- throughout her teenage years.

David Montgomery wrote in the Washington Post: “A man who claimed to be her grandfather enslaved her as a servant in his house. Then he sent her to a brothel. There, she says, her will was broken. She stopped feeling, stopped caring or hoping. But she found she still cared for the new girls arriving all the time -- girls who were still alive inside. [Source: David Montgomery, Washington Post September 22, 2008]

"I think that experience make me stand up," she told the Washington Post, tears coming to her eyes. "Something happen to me I didn't want to happen to the girls. I didn't want to happen to another one. Because it's not easy to survive it."

David Montgomery wrote in the Washington Post: Today, Somaly Mam “wears a lot of perfume, and anyone standing near her on this day can smell it. She says the perfume is not enough to wash away the stench of the brothels that still haunts her. The better way to ward it off, she says, is her field work in Cambodia, her direct contact with fellow victims, who know what she means when she says she is dirty. "It's insufferable," she writes. "The customers were dirty. They never showered. I remember one man with the most hideous breath. We had no toothpaste, but we would brush our teeth with ash or sand." [Source: David Montgomery, Washington Post September 22, 2008 ===]

Somaly Mam Escapes from Cambodia’s Sex Industry and Begins Her Battle Against It

One night at the brothel, Somaly Mam was made to watch as her best friend was viciously murdered. Deciding then that she would no longer “keep her silence,” Somaly heroically escaped her captors and began to build a new life abroad. [Source: Somaly Mam Foundation]

Mariane Pearl wrote in Glamour: “The defining moment in her life came, she says, when she saw a pimp kill one of her best friends in the brothel. Somaly says she looked the girl in the eye as she died, and realized not only that she needed to escape this life, but also to return and save others. She then left prostitution with the help of an aid worker, attended school and eventually married a French citizen, Pierre Legros, with whom she had three children. Together they founded AFESIP, although they are now in the midst of divorcing. “He is a good-hearted man,” Somaly says simply, and then sighs with frustration. [Source: Mariane Pearl, Glamour, August 1, 2006]

Angelina Jolie wrote in Time magazine: “The fact that she escaped makes her unique, but what makes her truly extraordinary is that she went back. While, understandably, most people would spend the rest of their lives quietly recovering from their wounds, Mam decided to confront the system that continues to victimize Cambodian girls. [Source: Angelina Jolie, Time magazine, April 30, 2009]

David Montgomery wrote in the Washington Post: “Mam began by helping a pair of new girls from the country escape the Phnom Penh brothel where Mam herself was a prisoner. Then Mam was lucky enough to be picked up by a client who was a Swiss humanitarian worker. He was yet another john, but he was not violent, and he eventually gave her a present of enough money to help out more girls. [Source: David Montgomery, Washington Post September 22, 2008 ===]

“Mam met more foreigners, and in about 1991 became the girlfriend of a French relief worker who spoke fluent Khmer, and whom she eventually married. She got work cleaning houses and hotels. Her husband respected her more than she respected herself. She thought he was "crazy" to insist that she make her own decisions and "do whatever I want." She learned to look people in the eye. She realized she had rights. She stopped keeping silent. She and her husband had two children and adopted a third, but their marriage fell apart a few years ago. ===

Somaly Mam and AFESIP

Somaly Mam is s the cofounder of an aid organization that rescues young women from brothels and then trains them for jobs like weaving and hairdressing. Her group, AFESIP (Agir pour les Femmes en Situation Précaire, or Acting for Women in Distressing Circumstances) has 155 social workers in Cambodia and the neighboring countries of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. Somaly says the organization has saved 3,000 girls since its founding in 1996. [Source: Mariane Pearl, Glamour, August 1, 2006]

Somaly Mam has dedicated her life’s work to saving victims, building shelters and programs for healing, and empowering survivors to become agents of change. Under Somaly's leadership, AFESIP employs a holistic approach that ensures victims not only escape their plight, but have the emotional and economic strength to face the future with hope. With the launch of the Somaly Mam Foundation in 2007, Somaly has established a funding vehicle to support anti-trafficking organizations and to provide victims and survivors with a platform from which their voices can be heard around the world. Somaly estimates that she and her team have assisted over 7,000 victims to date. [Source: Somaly Mam Foundation]

David Montgomery wrote in the Washington Post: “The girls in Mam's shelters are given a chance to go to school and grow up. They are returned to their families only if it appears they will not be forced back into prostitution. Some die of AIDS in the shelters. Yet, for all she has achieved, and learned how to say, she still struggles to believe she amounts to anything. "I still feel that I'm dirty and that I carry bad luck," she says in her book. [Source: David Montgomery, Washington Post September 22, 2008 ===]

"I don't feel like I can change the world," she also writes. "I don't even try. I only want to change this small life that I see standing in front of me, which is suffering. I want to change this small real thing that is the destiny of one little girl. And then another, and another, because if I didn't, I wouldn't be able to live with myself or sleep at night." ===

When a new girl comes to the shelter, the activist who learned to speak up knows it is best not to use her voice then. The girl is too traumatized to speak. Mam sits with the girl, hugs her, holds her the way a mother might -- the way she wished someone had held her. She calls this silent communication "heart talking." "Sometimes when you talk, you can say something that is not true," Mam says. "But the heart talking is true." ===

Victims Helped by AFESIP

Angelina Jolie wrote in Time magazine: “AFESIP works with local law enforcement to raid brothels and reintegrate the trafficked women into society. Mam has established a model for addressing this issue and has already helped more than 4,000 women escape the brothels. [Source: Angelina Jolie, Time magazine, April 30, 2009]

Describing former sex workers in an AFESIP facility, Mariane Pearl wrote in Glamour, “When we arrive at the center, Somaly introduces me to Pouv, a 15-year-old former prostitute who is in charge of the cooking. As we approach, Pouv is sitting on the floor skillfully chopping vegetables. Somaly says her workers rescued Pouv when she was 10. (The workers, as they make their rounds, keep a constant eye out for very young prostitutes like Pouv. Later they may return, and, in collaboration with the police, rush into a brothel and snatch the girls.) Pouv stares at her feet. I can’t help but think about my own young son and the way he trusts me with his entire life. At the very core of Pouv’s existence is what feels like the most fundamental form of betrayal—being sold by the woman who brought you life.[Source: Mariane Pearl, Glamour, August 1, 2006 [Source: Mariane Pearl, Glamour, August 1, 2006 ~~]

“Next I meet six-year-old Mou, who has a fever. Somaly tells me that Mou was sold by her family to a man who used her as a sex slave. After consulting a psychic, he decided that she brought bad luck, so he kept her in a cage. We also meet a new arrival, a girl of about 12. Never before have I seen anyone who has so clearly just been tortured. Her eyes are wide with terror. Somaly asks, “How are you holding up?” The girl tries to answer, but what comes out is something like a distant whistle, or a creaking door. ~~

“As we prepare to leave, kids come pouring out of a nearby school. A dozen girls in navy skirts and white blouses gather around Somaly like butterflies. They, too, are rescuees, who are learning to read and write. A few of them press into Somaly’s hand folded pieces of paper. “Those are their most hidden secrets,” Somaly says. The notes tell of wounds that have been buried so deep, they are not suited for spoken words. Somaly understands their pain. “Part of me hasn’t healed and never will,” she confides. But I can see how the girls give her hope. There is no telling how many girls she will inspire—and how many of them will rescue their sisters and ultimately change the fate of the next generation. ~~

Somaly Mam’s Battle Against Cambodia’s Sex Industry

Jane Ciabattari wrote in the Washington Post, “Mam has risked her life and her family's safety to rescue the growing number of children as young as 5 who have been victimized by the sex industry. In The Road of Lost Innocence, she writes of corrupt government officials and police who allow the illegal businesses to thrive. Her account inspires outrage. "How did Cambodia get to be this way?" she writes. "Three decades of bombing, genocide, and starvation and now my country is in a state of moral bankruptcy."[Source: Jane Ciabattari, Washington Post, November 2, 2008]

David Montgomery wrote in the Washington Post: “In 2004, Mam and her staff helped launch a police raid against their biggest brothel target yet, a hotel in Phnom Penh where 200 women and girls worked. The owners had powerful connections. She and her staff received death threats. A mob of men broke into one of Mam's shelters and carried off 90 women and girls who had taken refuge there, she writes. Mam never saw them again. A friend called her on the phone: " 'You know you're going to die, Somaly. Run away.' " Mam refused to leave "my girls, my victims," as she calls them. [Source: David Montgomery, Washington Post September 22, 2008 ===]

“Sex trafficking is more organized than it was when she was in a brothel. Pimps are more systematic, recruiting girls from poor families and villages. The girls are shuffled from Cambodia to Vietnam and Thailand and back, to keep them isolated and more powerless. "We save many, but we have many still in brothels," Mam says. "It's why in the nighttime I cannot sleep. Because when I close my eyes, I know exactly the time that the client come, I know exactly the time that they rape the girl, the time that the pimp hit us." ===

“She has tried to understand the mentality of families that abet this system. She met a mother who went to a brothel to pick up the money her 10-year-old daughter earned there. "I have a husband who beats me," the woman said, as Mam quotes her in the autobiography. "As soon as there's any money in the house, he drinks, then he beats me up and rapes me. He hits the children. And my daughter is in the brothel so that, thanks to her, there's a little money." ===

Kidnapping of Somaly Mam’s Daughter

Angelina Jolie wrote in Time magazine: Somaly Mam “has paid a terrible personal price...enduring death threats and assaults. In an effort to deter her work, brothel owners even kidnapped, drugged and raped Mam's then 14-year-old daughter in 2006. Most people would have walked away. Mam continues to fight back so that others can be spared the pain she once suffered. [Source: Angelina Jolie, Time magazine, April 30, 2009]

Mariane Pearl wrote in Glamour: On the day in May that I land in Cambodia, Somaly is in the midst of a personal crisis so serious that it is hard to fathom. Her 14-year-old daughter, Ning, has been missing for almost 24 hours. Somaly fears the worst: that Ning has been kidnapped—perhaps by a young man the family knows—and is at risk of being sold to a brothel. The moment Somaly tells me of the unfolding tragedy with her daughter, I understand her fears as if they were my own. Four and a half years ago, my husband, Danny, a journalist, was kidnapped and ultimately killed by Islamist militants in Pakistan. It gives us a strange but undeniable bond that the two of us feel instinctively, and we embrace. [Source: Mariane Pearl, Glamour, August 1, 2006 ~~]

“Somaly tells me she is going to meet with the police about the search for her daughter, so I set out to learn more about the sordid world in which she works. It turns out to be surprisingly easy. Far from being hidden, Phnom Penh’s brothels operate in the open, some right in the heart of the city, even though prostitution is officially illegal. I travel to one of the sex districts with a team of Somaly’s social workers, who are allowed into the brothels by the owners because they bring supplies like condoms, soap and toothpaste. ~~

“The next day, Somaly tells me she has heard no news of Ning, but, she says, the police have made finding her a priority. Somaly’s attitude is one of fierce determination, despite the circumstances. “We have work to do,” she says. “I need you to see how we are helping girls.” So we drive outside the city to an AFESIP center that houses 30 former prostitutes. The eldest is 16, Somaly says, and the youngest, five. In the car on the way there, Somaly refuses to panic about Ning. Instead we joke around, as if in defiance to despair. “I don’t dislike men,” Somaly tells me. “I just can’t stand most of them.” ~~

“On the drive back to the city, Somaly gets a call from the police. They’ve tracked Ning to Battambang, a province not far from the border of Thailand that Somaly says is a notorious human trafficking center. This is actually good news because many girls disappear into this world without a trace. Somaly says she must go there immediately. “Keep visiting the girls,” she urges me. “Please.” ~~

“The following day, a social worker calls me to say that Somaly has been reunited with her daughter. The police found Ning, who had apparently been drugged, in a bar in Battambang. She said she had been raped by her three captors—the young man who the family knows, along with two others. When I see mother and daughter again, both are deeply shaken. “I think they kidnapped Ning in retaliation for my work,” Somaly tells me. I see that this is another defining moment in her life. She is deeply hurt. But pausing in her work is not an option. She must keep going—for the sake of all the girls she is helping. For the sake of her daughter. She tells me how earlier, she took Ning’s beautiful, sad face in both of her hands. “You’ve suffered what you’ve suffered,” she told her. “Now you take that pain and you help others.” ~~

The Road of Lost Innocence By Somaly Mam

“The Road of Lost Innocence” is a book Somaly Mam about her life and struggle against the sex industry. A portion of the proceeds from the book are donated to the Somaly Mam Foundation. Describing how the book came about David Montgomery wrote in the Washington Post, “She spoke in French into a tape recorder for three days and sent the tapes to friends in France. She wanted her story told, in case anything ever did happen to her. A ghostwriter helped fashion her dictation into her autobiography, published in French in 2005, and updated for the English translation” and released in 2008. ===

The publisher’s press release for th book goes: “Born in a village deep in the Cambodian forest, Somaly Mam was sold into sexual slavery by her grandfather when she was twelve years old. For the next decade she was shuttled through the brothels that make up the sprawling sex trade of Southeast Asia. Trapped in this dangerous and desperate world, she suffered the brutality and horrors of human trafficking—rape, torture, deprivation—until she managed to escape with the help of a French aid worker. Emboldened by her newfound freedom, education, and security, Somaly blossomed but remained haunted by the girls in the brothels she left behind.

“Written in exquisite, spare, unflinching prose, The Road of Lost Innocence recounts the experiences of her early life and tells the story of her awakening as an activist and her harrowing and brave fight against the powerful and corrupt forces that steal the lives of these girls. She has orchestrated raids on brothels and rescued sex workers, some as young as five and six; she has built shelters, started schools, and founded an organization that has so far saved more than four thousand women and children in Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos. Her memoir will leave you awestruck by her tenacity and courage and will renew your faith in the power of an individual to bring about change.

Somaly Mam, the Celebrity

Universally recognized as a visionary for her courage, dignity, ingenuity, and resilience, Somaly has been honored as one of Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People of 2009 and as a CNN Hero. She is also the recipient of the Prince of Asturias Award for International Cooperation, The World's Children's Prize for the Rights of the Child (WCPRC), Glamour Magazine's 2006 Woman of the Year Award, one of Fortune Magazine’s Most Powerful Women in 2011, one of Fast Company's 2012 League of Extraordinary Women, and has won accolades from the US Department of Homeland Security and her work recognized by the US Department of State.

She has been a guest on the Tyra Banks show, Fox and Friends, America’s Most Wanted, and was featured on Oprah and CNN. She has participated in the World Economic Forum at Davos and DLD conference, the 2011 Newark Peace Summit (alongside the Dalai Lama) and conferences including Imagine Solutions, Womenetics, EG, and Crimes Against Children.

But Somaly's success has come at a price. She and her family have faced terrifying death threats and violence. Asked why she continues to fight in the face of such fierce and frightening opposition, Somaly resolutely responds, "I don't want to go without leaving a trace." Despite the fact that she is known the world over and has certainly earned a life of luxury and repose, Somaly continues to spend most of her time in the Cambodian recovery centers with the women and children she rescues, staying by their side as they walk the difficult path to recovery and freedom.

Awards and Press: 1) Prince of Asturias Award for International Cooperation. 2) 2006 Glamour Woman of the Year. 3) World Children’s Prize for the Rights of the Child (WCPRC). 4) Roland Berger Human Dignity Award 2009, the $1.27 million award is given by the Munich-based Roland Berger Foundation, a human rights group, and rivals the Nobel Peace Prize in the amount of money given. 5) One of TIME magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2009. 6) A CNN hero 2011, CNN Freedom Project. 7) Fortune Magazine's Most Powerful Women, with Sheryl Sandberg. 8) Posco TJ Park Foundation Community Development & Philanthropy Prize, 2012. 9) Nomura CARES Award, 2012. 10) Fast Company's League of Extraordinary Women. 11) Conde Nast Traveler Visionary, with Susan Sarandon. 12) Speaker at Roundtable Breakfast, World Economic Forum at Davos (Huffington Post).

Somaly Mam on Capitol Hill

Describing Somaly Mam at the U.S. Capitol, urging members of Congress to pass a law against human trafficking, David Montgomery wrote in the Washington Post: “"What can we do to help you?" asked Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), receiving Mam in her office. "Your pressure can help," Mam replied, saying that the United States can be an example to Cambodia and other countries where trafficking is rampant. A bill to bolster an existing anti-trafficking statute has passed the House and is before the Senate.About 2 million people a year are trapped in sexual bondage or labor servitude as a result of trafficking, including thousands in the United States, according to the State Department. [Source: David Montgomery, Washington Post September 22, 2008 ===]

“Her small entourage included two women who work with her in Cambodia and two executives of LexisNexis, which has taken up her cause as part of the corporation's philanthropic support for international "rule-of-law" projects. Her work has been supported by the United Nations, and in 1998 she was awarded Spain's Prince of Asturias Award along with six other women's rights activists. Her work was praised by the State Department in its 2005 annual report on human trafficking. ===

“Mam's voice is soft and shy, as if even after nearly two decades of activism she were still getting used to speaking up. Her matter-of-fact accounts, delivered in halting, imperfect English, leave her listeners shaken. "They rape them for one week, the virgins," Mam tells Schakowsky. The clients believe having sex with a virgin confers all sorts of benefits, even curing AIDS, Mam explains. The men -- from lowly Cambodian taxi drivers to foreign sex tourists -- assume the youngest children must be virgins, so there is a lucrative market for ever-younger girls. The girls Mam rescues are as young as 4, sold into prostitution by their families. ===

"Oh my God, it takes your breath away," Schakowsky says. "Sometimes the women themselves, they think that it is normal that they have been sold in a brothel," Mam tells her. "It's like me. Before, I think it's normal that I have been sold. . . . I never knew that I had rights." "Where do you find that courage?" Schakowsky asks Mam.” ===

Hillary Clinton and Somaly Mam

On a meeting attended by Hillary Clinton, The Daily Beast reported in March 2011: ““One thing I would urge, if you do get a chance, is to visit a shelter, a site where trafficking victims have been rescued and are being rehabilitated,” she said to a room that had suddenly gone silent. “I recently was in Cambodia, and it is just so overwhelmingly heartbreaking and inspiring to see these young girls. One girl lost her eyes—to punish her, the owner of the brothel had stabbed her in the eye with a nail,” Clinton continued. “She was the most optimistic, cheerful young woman, just a tremendous spirit. What she wants to do when she grows up is help other victims of trafficking, so there is just an enormous amount of work to be done.” [Source: The Daily Beast, March 6, 2011]

“The shelter Clinton referred to is run by the Cambodian activist Somaly Mam, who herself was forced into a brothel as a little girl. Mam credits Clinton’s visit with making her work rescuing young victims respectable in the eyes of her government. “She protects our lives,” Mam says simply, noting that during her visit Clinton took the time to talk with the girls and that many of the shelter’s children now keep photos of her on their walls. “Our people never paid attention. Hillary has opened their eyes, so now they have no choice; by her work she has saved many lives in Cambodia—our government is changing.”

What’s the Truth Behind Somaly Mam?

In May 2012, Geoffrey Cain of Cambodia, Media wrote: “Browsing the chatter around the Internet, I recently came across this potentially damaging Cambodia Daily article. The piece raises questions over whether the prominent anti-trafficking activist, Somaly Mam, exaggerated or fabricated details of a well-known 2004 raid on one of her shelters for former sex workers. It also asks whether, in a supposed revenge attack in 2006, human traffickers really kidnapped and gang-raped her daughter as she claims. These two episodes bolstered Somaly’s heroic image abroad, and probably helped her fundraising efforts. They were documented in detail in her autobiography. [Source: Geoffrey Cain, Cambodia, Media, May 25, 2012 +++]

“Somaly’s French ex-husband and former head of AFESIP, Pierre Legros, brought forward the allegations in response to claims she made at a United Nations conference last month. In her speech, Somaly said that in 2004, Cambodian soldiers entered her rehabilitation center and took a number of protected girls, killing eight of them. Legros denies the second part, telling the Daily: No one has been killed in that story…We became political actors at that time and Somaly became a political actor. So saying that [eight people were killed] at the UN is, I think, a big mistake from her side. The story notes that, while the US State Department condemned the raid at the time, no deaths were reported. It also alleges the women in Somaly’s center were being held against their will and “forced their way out.” +++

Commenting on the abduction of their daughter in Battambang — an episode that became a legend thanks to Glamour – Legros told the newspaper that she simply ran off with her boyfriend. Legros says he came forward with this information out of concern for their daughter’s privacy. It’s not clear whether he’s also acting out of a grudge against his ex-wife, who he divorced in 2008, or whether he’s onto something that merits a closer look. +++

Legros is not the first to make these claims. About three years ago, one former AFESIP employee and one sex worker who stayed in a center explained to me, in very similar detail to Legros’s account, that Somaly may have played with the facts in the abduction account (though they didn’t mention the 2004 raid). That’s not to say Somaly is lying, or to diminish the value of her organization’s work. It just means that potential donors and volunteers should apply healthy skepticism before they stand behind her marketing pitch, or that of any other nonprofit. If the allegations against her are true, though, this wouldn’t be the first time a prominent activist, campaigning for a trendy cause, has been caught fudging autobiographical facts.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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