In the U.S., where the Somaly Mam Foundation (SMF) is headquartered, shock reverberated after the founder tendered her resignation following a foundation-sponsored independent inquiry into her life. The internet was abuzz with speculation from major news sites.
A New York Times editor publicly called out columnist Nicholas Kristof to respond given his high profile support for Somaly Mam. He initially wrote about it briefly, saying it was hard to verify sources and said he would “continue to poke around.”
The SMF was hugely successful at raising funds at celebrity gala events under the image that they were offering a better life to women apprehended in raids aimed at sex workers on the streets of Cambodia. But those on the ground saw a different picture.
There have been online reports going back to 2008 questioning the anti-trafficking frenzy that blossomed around the SMF. Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW) and Women’s Network for Unity (WNU) were probably the first to challenge SMF and Kristof’s assumptions on Cambodian “sex slaves”.
WNU and APNSW published a report in 2009, ‘Caught Between and the Tiger and the Crocodile‘, describing the hardships sex workers faced when the anti-trafficking law went into effect in 2008 and sex workers were arrested, “rescued” and sent to reeducation centers like Somaly’s AFESIP. The report has been online for years.
Dale Kongmont, media director at APNSW, told Asian Correspondent: “We interviewed about 30 sex workers to learn about raids and rescues. I used the information from these interviews to make the video Bad Rehab in 2010 to show this [damage to sex workers].”
He set the lyrics of Bad Rehab to a popular Lady Gaga song. “Everyone knew that song, Bad Romance, and knew its meaning, even if they can’t speak English, they understand what it means.”
Bad Rehab shows a blunt reenactment of sex worker arrests, rapes and incarceration using Barbie dolls. Many sex workers work around entertainment venues, so music fits their lifestyle.
Transgender sex workers told APNSW and WNU they were tazored by the police when they were arrested.
“It’s also good to show to sex workers in other countries because they are dealing with the same problems of raids and rescues,” adds Kongmont.
The SMF was not happy about the video and worked to remove it, according to Kongmont. The video says of Somaly: “Remember you promised me Gonna give sewing machine, You such a lie, Yours bad rehab.”
Kongmont explains: “One woman [not trafficked but a voluntary sex worker] let herself get rescued because she wanted a sewing machine to start her own business and stop sex work. She had been promised a sewing machine if she completed six months of training at AFESIP. So she stayed at the center and was locked in. But after six months they told her she needed more training to get her sewing machine. She started another six month training course but she said it was the exact same training. Finally, she escaped AFESIP with another sex worker.”
He said the woman was adamant to get a sewing machine as promised.
“She actually kept getting herself arrested so she could be taken to other NGO training centers because she really wanted to get her sewing machine. She never got it. It was actually kind of sad. It was her words on the Bad Rehab video that said ‘Somaly Mam lies.’”
“Lady Gaga never complained to us about the video,” Kongmont says.
Cambodia’s anti trafficking law was designed under the same parameters that the U.S. uses to describe sex trafficking. Anti-trafficking organizations in the U.S. do not differentiate between forced and voluntary sex work but see all sex work as exploitative.
Technically Somaly Mam wasn’t lying when she described herself as a sex slave, according to the U.S. definition.
Nevertheless, after “poking around”, Kristof now disavows Somaly:
Sorting out the facts will take time, and we may never know for sure what is true or false in Somaly Mam’s past. I now wish I had never written about her, given my doubts, and I assume the same is true of The Washington Post, CNN, Time and other news organizations.
While he claims he barely wrote of her in his column and only as recently as 2011, he neglects to mention his book and organization, Half the Sky. Half the Sky focuses on locally run causes that people in the U.S. can donate to. PBS also aired a documentary on Half the Sky, which Kristof and Somaly took part in.
Half The Sky listed SMF as a “partner” when the scandal erupted, but not anymore. In contrast, the SMF website (as of press time) still lists Half the Sky as a nonprofit partner.
Kristof breezily brushes past this connection in his NYT column and closes with: “But I also hope that people will be as diligent in covering the scandal that is human trafficking as the (likely) scandal of false or embellished backstories.”
Countless sex worker rights activist have written about the lack of accountability and evaluation of these “feel good” interventions (which Kristof actively promoted) with little follow-up into how they affected those rescued.
“They all said they run away when the police came. All the sex workers said they were raped by the police, either it happened to them or they saw it happen to another sex worker,” says Kongmont.
“The HIV positive sex workers got caught because they could not run. Once they were put in the detention facilities, they did not have access to their ARVs [Antiretroviral drugs].”
The APNSW report explained that not only did HIV positive sex workers get sick without their ARV drugs, they also died in detention centers.
“If their family had money, they could get them out with a bribe. If they didn’t have money, they stayed the night at the police station and then went to ‘reeducation centers’. The women said they never were able to eat enough rice and were always hungry at these centers.”
Human Rights Watch also wrote about these problems.
“Somaly was smart and made sure her place was nicer than the “gulag” style centers,” says Kongmont. Despite their more attractive appearance, the video Bad Rehab says her centers lacked enough medication for detained women.
“No sex worker we talked to said ‘I’m so glad I was arrested.’”
Writer of the UK bestseller Belle de Jour: Diary of an Unlikely Call Girl and former sex worker, Dr Brooke Magnanti tweeted:
The criticism of #somalymam as a person will mean very little if Kristof and the NGOs use her as a scapegoat then go on, business as usual.
— Dr Brooke Magnanti (@bmagnanti) May 29, 2014
It looks like Kristof is doing exactly that.