Puerto Rican singer Ricky Martin, right, holds babies as Somaly Mam in Cambodia in 2008. Pic: AP.

Faces of children rescued from brothels have been proven to bring in donations.  Last December, CNN ran series with former actress Mira Sorvino on the sex trafficking of children in Cambodia, using the photo of a child helped out of the sex industry by anti trafficking group Agape International Missions, run by Dan Brewster.

This ‘poverty porn’ did not sit well with Cambodian sex worker collective Woman’s Network for Unity (WNU).  “Programs that try to support sex workers never get good money,” Ros Sokunthy, advisor to WNU, told Asian Correspondent then.  She said rich donors would rather support anti trafficking groups with an abolition agenda to stop all sex work, than those that help sex workers and their children get out of poverty.

She and Pen Sothary, a former sex worker and secretary to WNU, were frustrated that the CNN series, which used children to raise funds, has so many supporters.

And now the hugely successful Somaly Mam Foundation is under media scrutiny for fabricating stories of sex trafficking using children to raise money.  But the policy seemed to work as her foundation raised $2.8 million in 2012.

However, eventually this caught up with the activist and an independent inquiry into her work seemed to align with the allegations of fraud raised by Cambodia-based journalist Simon Marks, who was eventually published in Newsweek on May 21. One week later, May 28, a press release announced Somaly Mam’s resignation:

“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, and has raised critical awareness of the nearly 21 million individuals who are currently enslaved today.”

Pisey Ly, board member for WNU, told Asian Correspondent: “I feel that they [the Foundation] still praise the works Somaly and their institutions do not recognize the consequences of how their critiques impacted people, including sex workers and other vulnerable people who experienced poor treatment.”

She seems to have a point.  When the news of Somaly Mam’s departure from the organization was released, shock was the dominant sentiment on her foundation’s Facebook page.

One supporter wrote: “I’d rather her have girls tell stories of abuse they never received than put actual victims in front of a TV to relive it.”

“Exactly!” wrote another supporter in agreement.

Ly says this blind spot remains a “global challenge” and is really “anti sex work led by an anti trafficking agenda.”

In short, anti-trafficking organizations tend to be against all sex work, not just trafficking (forced sex work) and when they report global numbers for sex trafficking, which tend to conflate consenting sex work with forced, their statistics reflect this.

What harm has this caused?  When consenting sex workers are arrested or “rescued,” their children suffer.  With their mothers gone and no money or food coming in, they must find work, even though they are children.  Anyone who has spent time in Cambodia is well aware of children wandering through tourist areas begging and selling trinkets for money.

Because sex workers, themselves often lacking a formal education, want a better future for their children, they decided to start an informal school to give them more opportunities.  Sex workers have trouble registering their children for public school due to their mobile lifestyles and the constant fear of arrest so the school addresses this.

WNU Secretary Pen Sothary told Asian Correspondent that their support has helped the children to learn in a safe, accepting place.  Those that are able to progress far enough are then helped to register for formal schooling.   Nearly 200 children have been reinstated to formal schooling while the group has taught as many as 300 children a year basic Khmer literacy, English, and subjects in the arts, mathematics and hip hop dancing at their drop in centers.  However, they stopped supplying uniforms to children due to a lack of funding.  In contrast, Somaly Mam Foundation earns millions of dollars.

“Can we change minds of people who fund millions of dollars on this anti sex slavery?” Ly asked.

“The world is complicated but most educated, powerful and rich people drive agendas and throw money into them that they feel is right.  [They] neglect the cause and demands of those that need different treatments or responses,” Ly concludes.  But hopefully the story is far from over.