Phnom Penh, Cambodia – In early 2011, Srey Mao, 28, and two friends were “rescued” and taken to a shelter run by Afesip, a Cambodian organisation that prides itself on helping sex-trafficking victims recover from trauma while learning new trades such as sewing and hairdressing.
There was just one problem: The women claim they hadn’t actually been trafficked.
Instead, the women said they were willing sex workers who had been rounded up off the street during a police raid and sent to Afesip, headed by the internationally renowned anti-sex-slavery crusader Somaly Mam with funding from the foundation that bears her name.
They said they were confined there for months as purported victims of sex trafficking. Srey Mao claimed that she, her friends and a number of other sex workers in the centre were instructed by a woman to tell foreign visitors they had been trafficked.
“I was confined against my will,” Srey Mao said on Saturday.
The person she said instructed ordered her and others to lie was Somaly Mam.
For the better part of a decade, Mam has been the celebrated face of anti-human trafficking efforts in Cambodia.
With her undeniable charisma and tragic back-story as a former child sex slave, she has rubbed shoulders and traded hugs with Hollywood stars such as Susan Sarandon and Meg Ryan. CNN dubbed her a “hero” in 2007. Glamour Magazine made her a “woman of the year” honoree in 2006.
In 2010, then-US secretary of state Hillary Clinton visited an Afesip shelter here and later spoke about her moving encounter with Long Pros, a former sex slave who said her eye was gouged out by a brothel-keeper. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, one of Mam’s strongest supporters, wrote about Pros and his “hero” Mam.
Mam’s star-studded image abruptly lost its sheen on May 28, when she was forced to resign from the Somaly Mam Foundation following a Newsweek cover story reporting that she had lied about her past.
Not only had Mam not been an orphaned trafficking victim – reporter Simon Marks revealed in Newsweek that she grew up with both parents and graduated from high school – but she reportedly encouraged and coached girls to lie as well.
One of these girls was Pros, who, according to Newsweek, actually lost her eye to a tumor and was sent to Afesip for vocational training. The same was reportedly true of Meas Ratha, a teenager allegedly coached by Mam to say she had been trafficked when in fact she was sent to Afesip by an impoverished farming family, desperate to give their daughter a better start in life.
Afesip representatives did not respond to requests to comment for this story.