Sex trafficking crusader quits amid fabrication claims

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HONG KONG -- A well-known Cambodian crusader against sex trafficking, who attracted celebrity support to her cause, has resigned from the foundation she started after being confronted with allegations that she and others tied to her group fabricated stories about their experiences as young victims of the sex trade.

The activist, Somaly Mam, resigned from the foundation that bears her name days after Newsweek reported that key assertions she made -- including being sold into slavery at age 9 or 10 and spending a decade in a brothel -- were untrue. The Newsweek article also raised questions about the stories of women the Somaly Mam Foundation held up as examples of the horrors of sex trafficking, including Long Pross, who claimed to have had her eye gouged out by a pimp after being forced to work in a brothel.

"While we are extremely saddened by this news, we remain grateful to Somaly's work over the past two decades and for helping to build a foundation that has served thousands of women and girls," Gina Reiss-Wilchins, executive director of the Somaly Mam Foundation, said in a statement Wednesday. "We don't expect this transition to be simple, but we ask that you stand with us in the face of these serious challenges and help us to honor all victims and survivors, and the millions of women and girls who are enslaved across the globe."

She said the foundation retained a law firm in March to investigate the allegations, which were raised by The Cambodia Daily in articles in 2012 and 2013.

Ms. Mam helped draw millions of dollars to combat sex trafficking by enlisting support and attention from luminaries such as Oprah Winfrey, Spain's Queen Sofia, actress Susan Sarandon and Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook chief operating officer, who along with Ms. Sarandon sits on the advisory board of the Somaly Mam Foundation. Her work has been highlighted by journalists including Nicholas D. Kristof, New York Times columnist.

The Newsweek article noted that in discussing her past, Ms. Mam said she had been "sold in the brothel" by a man she knew as Grandfather, who turned her into a domestic slave at a young age, sold her as a virgin to a Chinese merchant and then forced her to marry a soldier at age 14.

But Newsweek, in its May 21 article, quoted acquaintances and teachers from her childhood in the village of Thloc Chhroy as saying they did not recall Ms. Mam's being raised by the "grandfather" figure she describes, and one childhood friend said she remained in the village until she got her high school diploma. The article also notes that Ms. Mam herself made conflicting claims about when she was sold into slavery and how long she had worked in a brothel: At a White House appearance, she said she was sold into slavery at age 9 or 10 and spent a decade in a brothel, while in her book she said she was trafficked starting at about 16.

Ms. Mam could not be reached for comment Thursday.

The Somaly Mam Foundation said in its 2012 annual report that it had raised more than $2.8 million that year, and that its affiliated social workers had made contact with 17,000 sex workers in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, distributing 750,000 condoms.

But some have questioned the group's practice of using young women to press the cause of highlighting sex-trafficking horrors. AFESIP co-founder Pierre Legros, Ms. Mam's ex-husband, faulted the international development aid system and the lavishly funded nonprofit sector for providing incentives for groups such as AFESIP to inflate figures about the problems they are confronting and distort the truth.

"She used the system, and she has been used by the system," Mr. Legros, who left the organization in 2004, said of his ex-wife. "I've worked with a lot of organizations, and you confronted the same issue when you wanted money. If you have no story, you don't have money."


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