Somaly Mam using fake sex trafficking victims to commit fraud
Somaly Mam Sex Slave Story Revealed to be Fabricated.
Meas Ratha was a teenager when she appeared on French television telling a tragic tale of how she was sold to a brothel in Phnom Penh and imprisoned as a young sex slave. Now, almost 16 years since her story was first broadcast on the France 2 channel, Ms. Ratha and members of her family have revealed that her story of abuse was carefully fabricated and rehearsed, on the instruction of Cambodia’s then-emerging anti-sex trafficking celebrity activist Somaly Mam.
In June 1998, Somaly Mam stood on the stage of Spain’s Campoamor Theater shoulder to shoulder with six of the world’s most celebrated women as she received the prestigious Prince of Asturias Award for International Cooperation. Six months prior to winning the award, and sharing that podium with, among others, Emma Bonino, a former European Commissioner for humanitarian aid, and Olayinka Koso-Thomas, a Nigerian-born doctor who had campaigned for decades against the circumcision of women, Ms. Mam had been virtually unknown.
Six months earlier, in January 1998, Ms. Mam was propelled from relative obscurity into the international media spotlight largely owing to the harrowing on-camera testimony of the young Meas Ratha and other alleged victims of Cambodia’s child sex industry.
Meas Ratha stands outside her home near Phnom Penh last month. (Simon Marks/The Cambodia Daily)
Ms. Mam’s work as president of her own Phnom Penh-based NGO, Agir Pour Les Femmes en Situation Precaire (Afesip), was being featured on French television as part of the popular weekly show “Envoyé Spécial.”
The documentary opens with the camera focused on Ms. Ratha, who was then a chubby teenager of about 14-years-old from Takeo province. Ms. Mam is seated at the young girl’s side as she tells a dismal tale of sexual slavery in an unnamed brothel somewhere in Phnom Penh.
“My name is Meas Ratha and I am 14 years old. I was born in the province of Takeo and I have seven brothers and sisters. My family is very poor. My father has disappeared. One year ago my mother fell seriously ill. I was completely distraught. I was very young and I didn’t know what to do,” the young Ms. Ratha says to the camera. She then cries and receives a comforting squeeze of support from Ms. Mam.
“They locked me up in a room and at that time I knew I had been deceived,” she continues.
The documentary goes on to explain how the young girl had been promised a job as a waitress in Phnom Penh, but wound up a captive in a brothel. Later, she is filmed playing musical chairs, skipping rope, singing alongside other girls being cared for inside the Afesip center and helping Ms. Mam treat an AIDS patient called Tom Dy.
Sixteen years since the documentary was televised, Ms. Ratha—now 32 years old and married—said her testimony for the France 2 channel was fabricated and scripted for her by Ms. Mam as a means of drumming up support for the organization.
“The video that you see, everything that I put in is not my story,” Ms. Ratha said in an interview last month. Ms. Ratha, who was simultaneously anxious and determined to let people know the truth, said that she did not want to cause trouble for Ms. Mam’s NGO, which had provided an education for her, but that she could no longer continue a lie that had followed her for half her life.
“Somaly said that…if I want to help another woman I have to do [the interview] very well,” Ms. Ratha said.
“You know, my reputation has been lost because of this video,” said Ms. Ratha, who speaks competent English, adding that she had struggled to live with being typecast as a former sex slave since agreeing to tell the fabricated story.
“Everybody saw me and say ‘I a prostitute. Her mother sold her.’ They say like this. Everybody looks down on me.”
Now, Ms. Ratha lives a simple life with her two-year-old daughter and husband, who is a pharmacist and sells medicine out of their home.
Asked if she wanted the public in France to know the truth about her life, Ms. Ratha was unhesitating.
“I want them to know too. But if they know, Afesip will be in trouble. I don’t want Afesip to be in trouble, so that it can help other girls,” she added.
Today, Ms. Mam is at the center of the global campaign against the trafficking of children and women into the sex trade. As president of her hugely successful foundation in New York, she rubs shoulders with Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and actress Susan Sarandon, both of whom are members of the Somaly Mam Foundation’s board. In 2009, Ms. Mam was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people. Her foundation raises millions each year, and Ms. Mam is a jet-setting ambassador for her cause.
She owes much of her fame to the harrowing and brutal stories of girls just like Ms. Ratha, who have relayed to audiences across the world painful stories of sexual slavery in order to raise money and awareness of the Somaly Mam Foundation.
But the fabrication of Ms. Ratha’s sex slave story is only the latest incident of false information to emerge from Ms. Mam and her organizations.
Last year, Ms. Mam finally admitted, following public scrutiny, that she had made false claims in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly in New York, in which she said that eight girls she rescued from the sex industry had been killed by the Cambodian army after they raided her organization’s shelter. Police officials and Ms. Mam’s ex-husband also last year strongly denied long-standing and highly publicized claims by Ms. Mam that her daughter was kidnapped by human traffickers in 2006 when she was 14 years old. The traffickers, she claimed, had videotaped her daughter being gang-raped in retaliation for her work with victims of the sex trade. Police said they were baffled by the claims, while Ms. Mam’s former partner said the story was a publicity stunt to raise funds for her organization.
A separate Cambodia Daily investigation conducted last year also uncovered that one of the Somaly Mam Foundation’s most highly-publicized sex trafficking victims, Long Pros, had fabricated her harrowing story of gruesome mutilation at the hands of a brothel owner. In numerous interviews and in a prime-time television documentary, Ms. Pros said she was imprisoned as a young teenager at a brothel in Phnom Penh where she was held as a sex slave and had her eye gouged out with a knife for refusing to have sex with customers. However, medical records and interviews with Ms. Pros’ parents and her eye surgeon showed she had her eye removed in hospital because of a tumor that developed in her childhood. Ms. Pros’ parents said she was sent directly from their home to Ms. Mam’s organization in Phnom Penh simply to get an education and she had never spent any time in a brothel.
The Somaly Mam Foundation’s press office in New York declined a request to interview Ms. Mam for this latest article. Ms. Mam also declined to be interviewed in relation to false comments to the U.N. General Assembly, the alleged fabrication of the kidnap of her daughter, and the alleged fabrication regarding Ms. Pros’ eye.
“We don’t know why, nor will we speculate on why Meas Ratha has allegedly made the claims that you report,” Afesip’s communication team said in an email.
“What are clearly facts is that in the 15 years since the filming of that documentary, the Somaly Mam Foundation (SMF) and AFESIP have led successful programs to help thousands of young women and girls escape from sex slavery and rebuild a life of dignity,” the organization said.
“Those women who choose to publicly share their personal stories about sex trafficking are courageous and strong, and we are saddened when forces work to silence their voices and seek to distract from building awareness of this critical global problem,” it continued.
Afesip declined to provide any information regarding the brothel from which Ms. Ratha was allegedly rescued, or where her case was filed with police. Afesip also did not provide such information related to the alleged mutilation of Ms. Pros or the alleged kidnap or Ms. Mam’s daughter.
The Somaly Mam Foundation also helps with the Voices for Change program, which is run by Sydney-based non-profit Project Futures—a charity that raises awareness about human trafficking and sexual exploitation in Australia and Southeast Asia.
The organization launched an investigation into Voices for Change after The Cambodia Daily’s investigation of Ms. Pros, who is a member of the program. When asked about the status of the review, the press office said that it was still in progress.
At Ms. Ratha’s family home in Takeo province, her father, Kong Tith, a bony man in his sixties who has kept his family afloat by doing everything from logging to building houses, said a relative had proposed that he send two of his daughters to Afesip back in 1997 because he was poor and unable to properly care for all of his seven children.
“[Ratha] went to the NGO run by Somaly. My cousin saw that I was poor, so he took two of my children to Somaly’s organization. They were not mistreated” by the NGO, he said. But, Mr. Tith said, when he learned of his daughter’s participation in the documentary, he traveled to Phnom Penh to confront Ms. Mam.
“I was the one who followed the case by going to the NGO and asking them about it,” he said in an interview last month.
“This was just an opportunist taking advantage of my child,” Mr. Tith said of the false claims his daughter made in the documentary, adding that he did not take his complaint further than Afesip because the organization had helped to educate his two daughters and provided them with shelter.
Ms. Ratha still remembers the fuss her father kicked-up because of the false story she told in the documentary.
“My father brought my relatives and police to the NGO and they really freaked Afesip out,” Ms. Ratha said. “In the end they talked and understood the issue, so the problem was solved.”
“I told him, ‘father don’t you worry [about the documentary], it is the NGO’s rule.’”
Flicking through photo albums of her son’s recent wedding, Ms. Ratha’s mother, Meas Sokhom, said she was shocked to learn of her daughter’s appearance on television back in 1998. Ms. Sokhom described her daughter’s childhood as difficult due to the family’s poverty. But not one exposed to the horrors of the sex industry or slavery in a brothel.
Ratha, she said, was a happy child, and out of all her sons and daughters, she showed the most natural intelligence. It was that natural smartness that they had hoped Afesip would cultivate, which was the reason they let her go to the organization in the first place, she said.
“We cannot say such a thing [sex slavery] happened to my daughter. We are her parents and we lived here the whole time,” she said. “If these things did not happen, why did they document her life like this?” she asked.
“I asked her about it [the documentary], but she did not say anything. She just stayed quiet.”
A 30-minute drive from Ms. Ratha’s childhood village, her sister, Meas Sokha, lives in a modern two-story home with a pond in the back yard for breeding fish. Ms. Sokha has two children and spends her days as a housewife. The village where she lives is a postcard perfect portrait of rural Cambodia surrounded by fluorescent green rice fields and tree-covered hills on the horizon. But she remembers harder times, when her family would sometimes have to go without food in the evening.
Ms. Sokha was the other child in the family to go to Afesip with Ms. Ratha in 1997. The two sisters slept, ate and worked together for approximately six months at Afesip in the hope of gaining an education and finding a job. At no point during their journey from their rural home in Takeo to the NGO’s center in Phnom Penh was her sister sold to a brothel, she said.
“We were desperately poor but I was not abused. She [Ratha] wasn’t either. We are from here and were sent there [to Afesip] because we were poor and did not study much,” Ms. Sokha said. “[Ratha] is now educated, so she can work at anything.”
Ms. Sokha said that she remembered how staff at Afesip had taken an interest in her sister, as she was a confident speaker.
“They only filmed her because she was smarter than me. She was better at talking than me. I was no good at that,” she said. “The point is we are good girls, but they say that we are not good and that we were sold” to brothels, she said.
“She was not raped or sold. She was not abused but we were very poor.”
Doubt over Ms. Ratha’s story emerged shortly after the France 2 show was broadcast. French national and long-time resident of Cambodia Marie Christine Uguen cared for Ratha when she was a teenager in the late 1990s. Ms. Uguen said she had been deeply shocked at seeing Ms. Ratha appear on television telling a version of her life she had never heard before, despite living with her for months. She saw the documentary on France 2 while she was visiting Battambang province on a work trip.
“I turn on the television to see an ‘Envoyé Spécial’ on Afesip. And there I see Ratha on television speaking, squirming and crying and Somaly who takes her hand,” Ms. Uguen said.
“I did not understand at all where this story had come from. I sat Ratha down in front of me and asked her what is this story about? What have I just seen on the television?
“…Then Ratha tells me, ‘Aunty, basically, I know you are not going to agree, but Somaly asked me to go to a home in Tuol Kok with several other girls and I was the one who acted the best, so she asked me and it was me who she chose,’” Ms. Uguen said.
“I said to her ‘What’s that, you did a rehearsal?’ And she told me ‘Yes we did a rehearsal in a home in Tuol Kok and at the end it was me who was selected…’”
Pierre Legros, Ms. Mam’s former husband and one of Afesip’s original founders, denied knowing anything about Ms. Ratha’s coached story for the French TV crew. He said that his job at Afesip in 1997 was not to manage the victims but to help raise funds for the organization and set up offices in other countries in the region.
Mr. Legros said that Afesip at the time cared for both victims of sex trafficking and other girls who were taken in because they were considered to be at high risk of falling into prostitution.
“Could Somaly have taken her in as a preventive case and afterwards say she has been trafficked? Yes, that is possible,” Mr. Legros said.
“Ask Somaly. She had direct contact with Khmer people (victims and family.) I was only managing the structure,” he said in a subsequent email.
Back at her home on the outskirts of Phnom Penh earlier this month, Ms. Ratha prepared to finally watch the documentary she had appeared in 16 years ago but had never actually seen. Watching a DVD recording of the documentary on a laptop computer at her home, Ms. Ratha was visibly moved at seeing the young girls from Afesip and her past.
On the screen appeared Srey Veng, “13 years old, raped, beaten and sold to different clients for two years,” the voice-over in French says. Next on screen was 12-year-old Sokha, “the youngest, sold and raped at the beginning by her step father,” the commentary continues.
Ms. Ratha looked perplexed. Sokha, known then as A’tour, was not supposed to have been in the documentary, an amazed Ms. Ratha said.
According to Ms. Ratha, Ms. Mam had told her that the story she was to recount for the filmmakers was true, but was the life-story of another young girl, Sokha, who had been too traumatized to speak about her past.
Ms. Ratha said that she agreed with Ms. Mam to tell Sokha’s story because then it was not really like lying. That Sokha was also featured in the same documentary telling a totally different story of rape and brothels was a huge shock to Ms. Ratha.
“I don’t understand why she is in the video,” Ms. Ratha said. “Somaly lied to me…. She said this story is [Sokha’s] story,” Ms. Ratha said.
“At that time, I was not happy since what I was saying was not my true story. But I cried because I felt sorry for [Sokha],” she said. “I don’t understand.”
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Once Coached for TV, Now Asked to Keep Quiet about Sex Trafficking Hoax
The woman who claims she was coached by global anti-sex trafficking advocate Somaly Mam to fabricate a story of sexual slavery for French television in 1998 says she has been approached by a Somaly Mam Foundation (SMF) staff member, who has begged her to stop talking to the media.
Meas Ratha, 32, revealed last month that as a young teenager she was selected by Ms. Mam to appear on the France 2 television channel in 1998 after undergoing rehearsals with a group of other young girls to falsely recount how she was sold to a brothel owner in Phnom Penh.
Days after her revelation was published on October 12, Meas Ratha said she received her first visit from the SMF staffer.
“There was a girl…came to me begging with tears to stop speaking to the media. Of course whatever I told you was true—that I was filmed to lie to the world and that I was a victim even though I was not,” Ms. Ratha said in a telephone interview on October 24.
“But now I can no longer speak,” she said.
Ms. Ratha identified the visitor as Sina Vann, a longtime employee of the SMF in Cambodia and program manager for the organization’s Voices for Change (VFC) program. The VFC program is run by SMF and aims at giving a voice to victims of sex trafficking in order to raise awareness about the issue.
The second visit by Ms. Vann was on October 23, said Ms. Ratha, adding that the SMF staff member had stressed that speaking out about her past could greatly damage the reputation of Ms. Mam’s organization.
“She was not here to intimidate me. But she begged me and cried in front of me and said that it would be a disaster for the organization if I keep talking to the media. She also asked me not to talk to other journalists if they approached me,” Ms. Ratha said.
“If I keep talking it will bring trouble to everyone: myself, the organization and you [journalists]. I used to stay inside the [SMF] organization so I want to help it,” she said, adding that she would heed the call and no longer speak about the fabricated story from 1998.
Ms. Ratha, who is now a streetside food vendor to garment factory workers on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, said she was admitted to Afesip in 1997 because her family of nine was struggling to survive.
Her parents and sister—who also stayed with Ms. Ratha inside an Afesip training center—backed-up Ms. Ratha’s claim that she was never enslaved as a prostitute inside a brothel in Phnom Penh.
Ms. Vann could not be contacted for comment.
Afesip CEO Sao Chhoeurth said on October 24 that he was not aware of any visit having been made to Ms. Ratha.
Hayle Welgus, policy and liaison manager for SMF in Cambodia, said Ms. Vann had not been sent by the organization in an official capacity.
“SMF hasn’t sent Sina [Vann] in an official capacity so I need to speak to her to see if she visited on a personal level,” Ms. Welgus said on October 24.
Contacted on Friday, Ms. Welgus declined to comment and referred questions to the communications department at SMF.
Asked about Ms. Vann’s alleged visit to Ms. Ratha, the SMF communication’s department declined to comment.
“The statement that was sent to you previously is all that we have to share on this matter,” the communications department at SMF said in an email.
The SMF communications department was referring to a statement in which Afesip said in October that it would not speculate on why Ms. Ratha had denied the story she had told France 2.
Afesip has also declined to say from which brothel Ms. Ratha had been allegedly rescued or to which department of the police her case of alleged enslavement and rescue had been filed.
Though Ms. Ratha insists the visit from the SMF’s Ms. Vann was only beseeching, she admits that she is now unwilling to speak out about the truth behind her story due to any repercussions that could stem from harming Afesip’s reputation in Cambodia.
After The Cambodia Daily reported its findings in October 2012 into the story of Long Pros, one of SMF’s most publicized members of the Voices for Change program, the young woman’s father, Long Hon, said he was paid a visit from Afesip staff who had also asked him to cease speaking to the media.
Ms. Pros had long told a horrific story of having an eye gouged out at the hands of a brothel owner. However, medical records show that Ms. Pros’ eye was removed by an eye surgeon in hospital—the victim of a large benign tumor that covered one of her eyes for many years during childhood.
Ms. Pros was only sent to Afesip after undergoing her operation at the Takeo Eye Hospital, her parents said, a claim that was also confirmed by medical records and images obtained showing Ms. Pros’ medically-removed eye.
While members of the SMF staff now appear reluctant for Ms. Ratha and the family of Ms. Pros to continue speaking to reporters, a huge amount of Ms. Mam’s success and global fame stems from the highly public testimony and many media interviews conducted by the young women inside her organization who tell harrowing tales of sex trafficking.
The high-media profile of the SMF, and support from board members such as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Hollywood actress Susan Sarandon, has helped the foundation’s revenues and expenditures rocket in recent years.
In 2011, the latest year for which figures are available, spending by the SMF increased to $3.53 million. The SMF’s annual fundraising gala in New York on October 23 was a star-studded event where tickets for some tables went for $100,000.
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Anti-Sex Trafficking Aid Worker Claims Fabricated Fake Victim Stories Are Common. Somaly Mam, Long Pros
Weighing in on revelations that fabricated sexual slavery stories were used to promote the work of Agir Pour Les Femmes en Situation Precaire (Afesip) in Cambodia, which was founded by global anti-trafficking activist Somaly Mam, a longtime aid worker said that staff at the organization were aware that some victims were not in the desperate situations they claimed to be.
Pierre Fallavier, who said he advised Afesip between 1999 and 2007, wrote in a series of recent emails that from the beginning of his relationship with the organization, concerns were raised by staff that information on victims that was being disseminated by Afesip was “exaggerated.”
Mr. Fallavier, who holds a Phd from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has worked for NGOs and multiple U.N. agencies in Africa and Asia, also claimed that, like Afesip, many aid groups create “composite” stories of the lives of people being helped by their organizations as a means to raise funds.
“I started working as an adviser to Afesip in 1999, and stopped in 2007. From the start, people around me—all Khmers—were saying the stories Somaly told about herself and some of the girls were exaggerated. At that time I did not want to listen, because I could see the good Afesip was doing. The level of violence against women then was higher than anywhere else in Southeast Asia,” Mr. Fallavier wrote in an email.
“A few courageous individuals then set up organizations to rescue such women. Among them, Afesip decided it would also lead a ‘political’ struggle to get the rights of women and children recognized…. [S]o at that time, what counted were results. Everyone knew that some victims lied and were not in the desperate situations they claimed to be, but they were still in so much need of help that it did not seem to matter,” he wrote.
“And then, at the same time, donors were getting an interest, and were sending their people with crews of journalists to take pictures and extracts selling stories. 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, or with promises their articles and reports would help advocate for the rights of women. And they were the first ones to manipulate the images and the stories.”
Mr. Fallavier said that the recent spotlight on the Somaly Mam Foundation, following revelations that at least two alleged victims of the sex trade helped by her organization had fabricated stories, should be extended to include many other humanitarian groups.
“[I] find it unfair to point solely at Afesip for fabricating stories about its typical beneficiaries. This has been and still is the approach that all major international NGOs use, in Cambodia and elsewhere,” he wrote.
“They take bits and parts of the life stories of different beneficiaries and make up a ‘typical’ sob story that they use to raise funds with.”
Mr. Fallavier, who worked for Handicap International (H.I.), said that he left the organization because of such a practice in 2000 because he believed it to be “unethical.”
“But the point is that all NGOs do so, that they are unapologetic, and that it is well known to anyone working in that sector,” he continued.
“Just take one of the stories from Cambodia that Oxfam, World Vision, Care, etc. use in their advertising campaigns ‘at home,’ and try to trace them. You will see how the majority of these stories are ‘composite’ of different realities,” Mr. Fallavier claimed.
“They justify it very bluntly: This is marketing they need to raise money, and it is only with extreme stories that they will get people to give the cash they need to undertake their work. In fact, in many cases, back home, private marketing companies are in charge of the advertising, and they sell NGO work in the same way they would with any other service.”
Responding to Mr. Fallavier’s claims, the communications department at the Somaly Mam Foundation said it would not comment as Mr. Fallavier had never held an official position with Afesip.
“[W]e can’t speculate about allegations made by someone who had no formal affiliation with the organization,” the communications department said in a statement.
“Mr. Fallavier has been a good friend of Somaly Mam and supportive to Afesip Cambodia on a personal and unofficial capacity. He has never held any official positions or roles at Afesip Cambodia. We do not know when his relationship with Afesip and Somaly Mam began, yet it is an amicable and supportive one that still continues today,” the statement continues.
Pierre Legros, who helped found Afesip in 1996 and is the ex-husband of Ms. Mam, confirmed Mr. Fallavier had advised Afesip.
At one time, Afesip’s funding from the European Union (E.U.) was sent through H.I. and Mr. Fallavier had acted as an intermediary between the two organizations, Mr. Legros said.
“In 1999 we received money from the European Commission. This money we could not receive directly as we had to pass through an NGO that had an agreement with the E.U. So we received money passed to us by an intermediary NGO. It was Handicap International that was chosen to be the intermediary with Afesip,” Mr. Legros said.
“Pierre Fallavier was hired by Handicap International to serve as someone who was responsible for the programs run by Afesip using Handicap International money. He was the adviser to Afesip in making the link between Handicap International and Afesip.”
Mr. Fallavier’s emails followed a recent story revealing that a 14-year-old girl being rehabilitated by Afesip had been coached in 1998 to tell a fabricated story of sexual slavery in a documentary for French television. Other stories promoted by Afesip of sex slavery, trafficking and even killing have also proven to be false.
In his emails on the subject of victim fabrication in the aid industry, Mr. Fallavier reserved some of his harshest criticism for Handicap International France (HIF).
According to Mr. Fallavier, in 1999, when he was working in Cambodia with HIF, the organization launched a campaign to send hundreds of thousands of letters to raise funds from individuals in Europe using stories of child victims of land mines. The campaign, run out of HIF’s headquarters in France, gained immense traction because of its focus on child landmine victims. However, child victims of landmines represented only a tiny proportion of the work HIF was actually carrying out in Cambodia—most of its work was in roads, irrigation and access to water.
Though he does not claim that the landmine stories were fabricated, Mr. Fallavier said they greatly exaggerated the extent of the problem.
“I learned that if work with children victims of landmines represented less than ten percent of HI operations worldwide, the fundraising campaign that showed HI largely as supporting these children brought in 90 percent of the private funds it used to complement institutional funding in all its operations,” Mr. Fallavier said.
“So, somehow HIF was collecting the majority of its funds on a belief they built among the public that the money would be used to support these children,” though Mr. Fallavier admits that a disclaimer was written in tiny print at the bottom of H.I.’s call for funds.
Arnaud Richard, head of the Federal Information team for H.I., said last week that the organization “does not fabricate stories” when publicizing its work in some of the world’s poorest countries.
“The stories are personal stories which give the general public an insight into both the wider situation and the lives of many of our beneficiaries. This enables us to raise the awareness of the public and private donors in countries where HI is represented by national associations (UK, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, Canada and USA). We would also point out that beneficiaries are informed of HI’s actions and are asked to give their permission to use their image,” he said.
“Several people who have worked for our organization for many years remember that Mr. Fallavier once worked for Handicap International. However, he left the organization more than 13 years ago, and we do not currently have any further information on his reasons for leaving Handicap International,” he said.
Mr. Richard said that H.I. promotes its work abroad through a team of four people dedicated to gathering testimonies and information from its operations and programs.
These four people, dubbed the “Federal Information team,” regularly travel to the field to meet with beneficiaries. The stories can then be used as part of the organization’s attempts to raise funds.
Asked about Mr. Fallavier’s claims that H.I.’s fundraising techniques were misleading the public, Mr. Richard said the organization engages in focused campaigns in order to draw the attention of donors to its activities.
“These campaigns were indeed run during the period you have mentioned in order to raise funds,” Mr. Richard said referring to H.I.’s campaign carried out during 1999 and 2000.
“However, to be totally clear, at no point during these fundraising campaigns did the organization state that the money collected would be specifically used for our actions in Cambodia. We are always careful to point out that donations are used to help people with disabilities and to improve their living conditions. For example, we might highlight the cost of fitting a disabled person with an orthopedic device or providing them technical aids in order to give donors an idea of the potential impact of their donation.
“In order to avoid misunderstandings on this point, however, the documents sent out to donors specifically state that the testimonies are offered as examples only. The reply slip also clearly states that, by making a donation, the donor ‘authorizes Handicap International to allocate its aid to the most useful and urgent activity.’”
Mr. Richard also took issue with Mr. Fallavier’s interpretation of H.I.’s work.
“We strongly refute the idea that these stories were invented or that we misled donors regarding the use of their donations. Although we are sure that Mr. Fallavier—who appears to have made a good impression on those who worked with him at Handicap International—is acting in good faith, his interpretation of an activity of which he has very little knowledge—fundraising—is totally false,” he said.
Other organizations in Cambodia working with women and children also denied Mr. Fallavier’s claim that they engage in exaggerating stories, and that any stories on victimhood are presented accurately using real, consenting people or composites of real life situations.
Talmage Payne, CEO of Hagar International, said the practice of using victim testimonies in order to sell an NGO’s work abroad raises serious questions due to the pervasiveness of using images in fundraising that fully identify the face and names of sexual abuse or trafficked minors.
“This violates a number of best practice protocols about protecting clients and many national laws—even if the story is true,” Mr. Payne said.
He added that the Somaly Mam Foundation’s use of a 14-year-old alleged victim of sex slavery could even be in violation of Cambodia’s Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation, which states that “Newspapers and all other mass media shall be prohibited from publishing or broadcasting or disseminating any information which can lead to public knowledge of identities of victims in the offences stipulated in this law.”
“The well known and well regarded [NGO] brands are very careful about this with strict protection standards. It’s a problem on the fringes. It’s not a norm or mainstream,” Mr. Payne said.
Mr. Payne said that in his organization’s publications a researcher may create a composite case study of many stories in order to “create victimology of certain types of abuse and recovery,” all of which is disclosed in any writing on the matter. He added that all stories are based on the subject’s consent and that identifying images are never used in cases of trafficking or sexual abuse.
Andrew Moore, country director for Save the Children, also said fabricating victims’ stories is not practiced by his organization.
“Save the Children does not fabricate stories for fundraising purposes,” he said. “We adhere to high standards of child protection and child safeguarding in gathering stories from the field, and all our staff are trained on child safeguarding.
“Our publicity work is done in-house, with thorough approval protocols that ensure that only factual reports that safeguard the interests of children are released.”
In a recent article, Sebastien Marot, executive director of Friends International, an NGO that helps disadvantaged children living in urban areas in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Indonesia, Honduras, Mexico, Egypt and Burma, said the situation regarding the fabrication of victims’ stories had arisen as “a direct consequence of the interconnected actions of the child protection organizations, the media, the donors and the general public; all wanting the best for these children, but instead turning them into victims.”
“[A] large number of organizations get sucked into using children to raise funds: making them talk about the abuse they survived in front of a camera, having their picture in a pitiful situation published for everyone to see, allowing non-professional visitors into their centers [like orphanage tourism],” Mr. Marot wrote.
“In worst cases, the truth is distorted or the stories invented to attract more compassion and money,” Mr. Marot said in the article published on his organization’s website.
“The impact on the lives of these children is terrible: if they come from an abusive situation, such a process retraumatizes them and in any case it stigmatizes them forever.”
Mr. Marot said the media was complicit, and searched out and published emotionally-charged stories in order to attract readers. Moreover, donors tend to react to these stories.
“As regulators of the money it is easy, if specific guidelines are not in place, to fund projects on a purely emotional basis. For example we have witnessed a rapid increase of orphanages in Cambodia (funded by local and foreign private donors), despite the fact that most of these children are not orphans and it is against current Cambodian Government policies,” he wrote.
“Like the general public, donors react to highly emotionally charged stories that in some cases are built to please them or are told at the expense of the same children they want to protect. Many donors do not have the capacity or desire to check these stories, so we end up in situations of ‘embellished’ story lines.
“A main consequence of this is that in some instances organizations end up selling the wrong problem to the donors: since donors will fund based on emotions and not on the more mundane facts, this can lead to the creation of programs built on entirely wrong assumptions which do not provide the right solutions to the beneficiaries. They may give the ‘right’ message/image back to the donors but end up further hurting the children with the money that was intended to protect them,” he continued.
Aarti Kapoor, who was a legal adviser to Afesip between 2003 and 2006 and still works to combat sexual abuse against children, said child protection has become highly sensationalized.
“The image of human trafficking has become highly sensationalized, often to get media attention and raise funds through emotive reactions. The reality of trafficking is often more complex,” Ms. Kapoor said.
“The tragedy is that sensationalized perceptions of trafficking end up hindering our ability to identify and respond to the majority of cases on the ground.”
Since its creation in 2007, the Somaly Mam Foundation (SMF) has attracted top U.S. business leaders and Hollywood stars to the worthy cause of
combating the trafficking of children into Cambodia’s sex industry.
Growing out of Somaly Mam’s Phnom Penh-based organization Agir Pour Les Femmes en Situation Precaire (Afesip), which was launched in 1996 to care
for child victims of the sex industry, SMF is the global fundraising arm of the Cambodian NGO.
SMF was created with the help of U.S. Air Force Academy graduates Jared Greenberg and Nicholas Lumpp as a way to raise funds for the work being
carried out by Afesip and five other sex trafficking organizations. The SMF’s mission to raise funds for groups fighting against sex trafficking has been
At the annual SMF gala dinner, scheduled for October 23 in New York’s 1920s-era Gotham Hall ballroom, a donation of $100,000 was required to secure
seating for 20 guests at two “gala chair” tables.
The fundraising prowess of the SMF is largely due to the foundation’s board of directors and global advisory board, which includes: Jennifer Fonstad,
managing director of the multibillion dollar venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson; Brandee Barker, former head of global communications and
public policy for Facebook; Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO; actresses Susan Sarandon, Daryl Hannah and Lorie Holden; supermodel Petra Nemcova;
and Melanne Verveer, U.S. ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues.
Thanks to the foundation’s fundraising efforts, the SMF has grown considerably in recent years with spending increasing from $348,283 in 2008 to $3.53
million in 2011, according to financial reports filed with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
Revenues raised by the SMF between 2009 and 2010 increased 47 percent to $3.17 million. At the same time, the foundation’s expenses increased 100
percent from $1.52 million to $3.04 million, according to the IRS filings.
In 2011, revenues fell 40.8 percent to $1.88 million compared to 2010. Expenditures, however, rose that year to an all time high of $3.53 million. Among the
SMF’s expenditures, which include salaries, travel and advertising, are funds transferred to actual projects for the purpose of ending slavery and sex
trafficking in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
In 2009, grants and additional assistance from the SMF to organizations outside the U.S. (in Cambodia and other Southeast Asian countries—the SMF now
has links to projects in Laos and Vietnam) amounted to $835,480. In 2010, that amount was slightly less at $759,338. In 2011, the figure totaled $808,838, still
less than in 2009. Figures for 2012 are not yet available. While grants and assistance to projects reduced between 2009 and 2011, travel expenses for the
SMF between 2009 and 2010 increased threefold from $112,378 to $357,463, according to the IRS filings. Spending on advertising and promotion also
increased from just $13,501 in 2009 to $221,887 in 2010 and $211,672 in 2011.
“Compensation” for the SMF’s current officers, directors, trustees and key employees also grew from $152,370 in 2009 to $324,461 in 2010. In 2011, that
figure reached $492,755, an increase of 51.9 percent year-on-year. Another entry in the SMF’s IRS filings relates to “other salaries and wages,” which
increased from $63,542 in 2009 to a sizable $378,384 in 2010 and a whopping $641,946 in 2011.
Sex-trafficking, fraud and money at the Somaly Mam Foundation
Cambodia Daily just ran two controversial features on Somaly Mam, a well-known trafficking survivor and head of the anti-trafficking non-profit, the Somaly Mam Foundation that funds shelters in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Somaly Mam, Cambodia’s most well-known anti-trafficking activist, partly due to Nicholas Kristof whose “live tweeting” a brothel raid with Somaly Mam was roundly criticised by other NGOs in Cambodia, is accused of false stories of abuse, murder and kidnapping of young women, and the organization of hugely over-paying top staff including Somaly Mam herself.
Sex Slave Story Revealed to be Fabricated interviews one of the women who as a teenager spoke about her ordeal as a survivor of trafficking to raise funds for SMF, a story she now says wasn’t hers but a script she was chosen to repeat because she was bright and well-spoken, in exchange for free education at a shelter. Another survivor’s story, Long Pros, is also in question with an alleged childhood injury instead of a brothel owner’s eye gouging. Also mentioned is the UN speech where Somaly Mam claimed young women in a brothel were shot by the Cambodian police during a rescue attempt, later recanted, and her earlier claims that her daughter was kidnapped and gang-raped in response to Somaly Mam’s work, a claim denied by her ex-husband (who now runs an anti-trafficking NGO himself in Cambodia) and the daughter. Why use false or exaggerated stories? As the accompanying feature The Rise of the Somaly Mam Foundation reports, because it pays very very well. Somaly Mam’s salary has steadily increased along with other executive staff to nearly 14% of the 2011 expenditures, nearly as much as the 16% that went to the main shelter in Cambodia. That puts SMF in company with other charities with highly-paid executive staff and less going to the actual programs – Somaly Mam Foundation in 2011 managed to hit just 23% in programs grants, the other 77% else going to fundraising, administration and staff. Ron Robinson who topped Charity Navigator’s list for overpaid charity executives, took 3.4% of Young America’s Foundation, less than half the share that the CEO position at SMF, held by Bill Livermore and then Rigmor Schneider, US$253,429 for 7% of the total budget. The SMF’s annual financial report for the same period reports a very different picture from their 990IRS form for 2011 (Charity Navigator requires registration), claiming 66% of their expenses went to “grants and other programs”. Bangkok-based journalist Andrew Drummond’s tabloidish take and Khmer440, an expat forum with bleak humor, discuss the new reports and rumors. Criticism of the SMF and Afesip has simmered for a long time, from sex workers and sex work organizations, other aid workers and others in Cambodia.
A second former staff member of anti-trafficking organization Afesip has cast doubts over long-standing claims by the NGO’s president, Somaly Mam, that her daughter was kidnapped by human traffickers in 2006 in retaliation for her work with victims of the sex trade.
The alleged kidnapping, which was referred to in a speech by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon earlier this month, was also refuted on Sunday by Afesip’s former director and Ms. Mam’s ex-husband Pierre Legros.
Mr. Legros said that his daughter was not kidnapped, but had run away with her boyfriend in 2006 and that he was speaking out now in order to protect the privacy of daughter, whom he claimed was being used as “marketing” for the Somaly Mam Foundation.
Officials at Afesip in Phnom Penh have referred all questions regarding the alleged kidnapping to the spokesperson of the Somaly Mam Foundation, who said a response was pending while Ms. Mam receives minor medical treatment.
Aarti Kapoor, a legal adviser at Afesip between 2003 and 2006, said that colleagues at the organization in 2006 informed her that Ms. Mam’s daughter had run away from home, and that there was not mention of abduction at that time.
“My understanding at the time was that she had not been kidnapped, and that she ran away with her boyfriend,” Ms. Kapoor said yesterday by telephone from Bangkok. “It was her third attempt at running away. Her parents were in a divorce and had separated. It was just an unfortunate incident where she ran away from home.”
Ms. Kapoor added in an email that she was only made aware of the allegation that Ms. Mam’s daughter had been kidnapped by a BBC journalist in 2006, and that she was so surprised by the new version of the alleged events that she asked the journalist to not report on the allegations, which he deemed to be unethical and an invasion of the privacy of the child.
“I also questioned the veracity of some of the alleged facts,” Ms. Kapoor wrote.
A global spokeswoman for victims of human trafficking, Ms. Mam first claimed that her teen-aged daughter had been kidnapped by human traffickers and taken to Battambang in an article in Glamour Magazine in 2006. The story, as recounted by Ms. Mam in her many public appearances since to promote the plight of Cambodia’s trafficking victims, has evolved to include serious crimes allegedly perpetrated against her daughter while being held by her abductors in Battambang province. Ms. Mam has linked the alleged kidnap and abuse of her daughter to a much-publicized anti-human trafficking raid in 2004 on the Chai Hour II Hotel in Phnom Penh.
U.N. Secretary-General Ki-moon made reference to the alleged kidnapping on April 3 during an appearance by Ms. Mam at a U.N. panel on anti-trafficking in New York.
“Ms. Mam also endured terrible atrocities. Not only was she the victim of human trafficking, but after she escaped, her daughter was kidnapped as well. It is quite possible that the kidnappers were targeting Somaly’s family because she is fighting against them,” Mr. Ki-moon said.
In her presentation to the U.N. panel, Ms. Mam also claimed that eight girls were taken from her refuge and killed by the Cambodian army following the high-profile Chai Hour II Hotel raid.
Cambodian police last week described Ms. Mam’s claims that eight girls were killed as outlandish, and they said this week that they had no reports of the Afesip director’s daughter being kidnapped by human traffickers.
While the characterization of the event is being called into question by former Afesip staff, in 2006 then-US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli sent a note on the incident in a diplomatic cable to Washington as part of his regular, and detailed, updating on the status of trafficking in persons in Cambodia.
In that cable, released by Wikileaks, Ambassador Mussomeli said that Afesip had informed him that Ms. Mam’s daughter was lured by “her peers” to Battambang and that three people were subsequently arrested by Interior Ministry police officers.
“Afesip reported that on May 10, after receiving a mother’s complaint, the police of the Ministry of Interior went to Battambang province to rescue a 14-year-old missing girl. The girl was lured by her peers from Phnom Penh to Battambang province. Afesip said that the perpetrators intended to traffic the girl to Thailand. Police found the girl in a Battambang club under the influence of drugs. Police arrested three suspects and charged them with trafficking. Somaly Mam, Afesip’s president. Somaly complimented the police on their great cooperation to find her daughter,” the cable states.
The U.S. State Department’s annual reports on the status of trafficking in persons, however, makes no mention of the kidnapping of Ms. Mam’s daughter in 2006 or in any year thereafter, while James Heenan, deputy representative of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Phnom Penh, said the U.N. did not have “any knowledge of this incident.”
Deputy National Police Chief Lieutenant General Un Sokunthea said that she had no knowledge of the alleged kidnapping, adding that such a serious crime involving the director of a well-known NGO would not have slipped by unnoticed in Cambodia.
“Somaly was here [in Cambodia]. If there was such a case in 2006, it can’t be held quiet until now,” said Lt. Gen. Sokunthea, who was head of the Interior Ministry’s anti-human trafficking police department at the time of the alleged kidnapping in 2006.
Ten Borany, the acting director of the Interior Ministry’s anti-human trafficking department, said he too knew nothing of the kidnapping, while Sok Kalyan, the former prosecutor in 2006 at Phnom Penh’s municipal court, said that such a case was never brought to his attention.
Two former deputy prosecutors and one current deputy prosecutor at Battambang Provincial Court said on Monday that the alleged kidnapping case had not been brought to their attention.
Ms. Mam’s ex-husband, Mr. Legros, said on Sunday that he wanted his ex-wife to stop publicizing the alleged kidnapping of his daughter and that it had gone too far that the U.N. Secretary-General had taken up the cause.
“She has never been kidnapped by anyone. She escaped from home because at that time I was not there and she have a few arguments with Somaly. She escaped with her boyfriend and she disappeared and Somaly discovered her in Battambang,” Mr. Legros said.
“I would like the privacy of my daughter to be private…. She [Ms. Mam] has used that for many years and now I am fed up.”
Here are some good articles that have a good summary of the Somaly Mam, and Nicholas Kristof controversy about them lying about Sex Trafficking:
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.
‘Lies, damned lies, and statistics’
Although the stories of Mam, Pros and Ratha have now been widely scrutinised in the media, less examined have been Mam’s frequent embellished statements about the scale and nature of sex trafficking in Cambodia.
The term “trafficking” has become trendy among donors in the Western world for the pure horror it evokes – a horror that Pros embodied for many – but it leaves out a whole spectrum of complex choices and negotiations, and often erases women’s agency entirely.
Sebastien Marot, founder of the nongovernmental organisation Friends International, which works with street children and other vulnerable populations, has lived in Cambodia since 1994. In all his years in the country, he said he has encountered only a handful of what he considers clear-cut cases of sex slavery, despite the lavish funding and massive attention from celebrities that the cause attracts.
“There’s definitely fashions in the donor world,” he said. “The big thing now is trafficking – people say, ‘Oh my God, trafficking’ – but how do we define that?”
Mam and her foundation have interpreted the term liberally, claiming repeatedly, along with Afesip, that sex slaves in Cambodia number in the tens of thousands.
In 2011, Mam told an interviewer that there were 80,000 to 100,000 prostitutes in Cambodia, 58 percent of whom were trafficked. In a 2010 Somaly Mam Foundation video, Hollywood actress Lucy Liu solemnly intoned in a voiceover that “the low-end estimate for the number of sex slaves in Cambodia alone is over 40,000”. Mam has also claimed that it is commonplace for children as young as 3 to be sold into sex slavery in Cambodia.
The source for these numbers is unclear, and according to some, wrong.
A study published in 2011 by the UN Inter-Agency Project on Trafficking based on data collected in 2008 stated that the number of sex trafficking victims in Cambodia is 1,058 at most, including 127 children, six of whom were under the age of 13. The majority of these cases involved women who had fallen into debt to their brothels, or prostitutes under the age of 18. These are both abhorrent and illegal, but they are a far cry from the extreme scenarios Mam often invoked – girls put in cages, tortured with electricity, having their eyes gouged out by pimps.
“We never encountered any such thing, and we certainly looked for it,” the study’s author, Thomas Steinfatt, said this week. “We couldn’t find any instances of that … In terms of people tortured, I think they’ve been watching too many movies.”
Steinfatt, a professor at the University of Miami, said the figure of 1,058 is still an accurate estimate of the number of sex trafficking victims in the country. Although he has been criticised by some anti-sex-slavery activists for producing such a low figure, he is the only researcher to have systematically canvassed Cambodia seeking out brothels and collecting data on the women and girls inside.
“Sex trafficking is actually one of the smaller portions of trafficking,” he said. “Much more [trafficking] goes on in labour or domestic work. It’s quite literally the ‘sexiest’ topic, and it’s something that really bothers people – which it should, but it’s not the largest.”
Helen Sworn, the founder of anti-trafficking coalition Chab Dai, noted that other researchers have disputed Steinfatt’s findings and methodology, though added that Steinfatt’s estimate “was the best available number” before laws introduced in 2008 and 2009 that caused “a significant shift underground of incidents, which was not addressed in the previous research”. However, Sworn said Mam’s resignation should be an impetus for soul-searching from NGOs on how to proceed in the future.
“Of course this will have repercussions on the sector, which is why we need to be intentional and professional in the way we implement programs,” she said. “Funding has always been a challenge for those who don’t exploit the dignity of others, so maybe this just makes for a more democratic platform where it will be equally challenging.”
Mam’s embellishments have also distracted attention from the very serious problems Cambodia still faces, including the structural reasons why 1,058 women and girls might be forced into prostitution and why sex work is often seen as the best job available.
‘Victim’ or ‘prostitute’?
“Abolitionist” NGOs such as Afesip take the position that sex work is by definition coercive, and that it is impossible to choose to be a prostitute. In a 2008 interview with the Phnom Penh Post, Mam noted that she preferred to use the term “victim” rather than “prostitute”, and that women who thought they were voluntary sex workers could actually be sex slaves.
In 2006, in response to complaints by sex workers that they did not like being sent to NGO-run shelters after police raids, Afesip advisor Aarti Kapoor told The Cambodia Daily, “We don’t believe prostitution is a legitimate form of work”. This led Afesip to support a draconian anti-human trafficking law, which was passed by Cambodia’s parliament in 2008 and, some advocates claim, ramped up police abuses against sex workers like Srey Mao.
Srey Mao said she became a prostitute because she believed it was the best option to support her aging parents and young daughter. Months in the Afesip shelter did not change her mind. She claims that after she arrived at the shelter, she was not given access to anti-retroviral drugs for five days or allowed to see her family. Instead, she was enrolled in a yearlong sewing course, entailing eight hours a day of study or garment work.
“I was not happy to be there … Very often, during our short break for lunch, Afesip staff and sometimes Mam Somaly came to us and told us to tell donors and foreigners who would come to visit shelters that we were victims of human trafficking.”
Seven months into her stay at the shelter, Srey Mao ran away and returned to life as a prostitute.
The Story of Somaly Mam – click below for larger image: