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 connected to her group fabricated stories about their experiences as young victims of the sex trade.
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, the executive director of the Somaly Mam Foundation, wrote in a statement issued 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 had 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 the cause of combating sex trafficking by enlisting support and attention from such luminaries as Oprah Winfrey, Queen Sofia of Spain, the actress Susan Sarandon and Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, 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, a columnist for The New York Times.
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 her grandfather, who turned her into a domestic slave at a very 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 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 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 from when she was “about 16 years old.”
Ms. Mam could not be reached for comment Thursday.
In its 2013 annual report, the Somaly Mam Foundation said that it had raised more than $2 million in contributions the year before, and that its affiliated social workers had made contact with 17,000 sex workers in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, performing such work as distributing 700,000 condoms in 2012.
But some have questioned the group’s practice of using young women to press the cause of highlighting the horrors of sex trafficking. Pierre Fallavier, who said he advised Ms. Mam’s antitrafficking group Afesip, said in emails to The Cambodia Dailythat the group’s work reflected how many aid organizations, in their zeal to raise funds, use “composite” portraits of people they aid.
“People around me — all Khmers — were saying the stories Somaly told about herself and some of the girls were exaggerated,” he wrote. “At that time I did not want to listen, because I could see the good Afesip was doing.”
“At the same time, donors were getting an interest, and were sending their people with crews of journalists to take pictures,” he wrote. “I used to tell Somaly to send them away, that all they wanted were exotic stories of violence and sex, with the picture of a beautiful hero saving children so they could sell their papers. But they came with the funders.”
Pierre Legros, Ms. Mam’s ex-husband and the co-founder of Afesip, blamed the system of international development aid and the lavishly funded nonprofit sector for providing incentives for groups like 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 about 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.”
“I’m not surprised,” he said. “What is surprising to me is that it took 10 years for people to discover that it was a joke.”