The United States’ beloved – albeit disgraced – anti-trafficking advocate Somaly Mam has been waging a slow but steady return to glory since a Newsweek cover story in May 2014 led to her ousting from the Cambodian foundation that bore her name. The allegations in the article were not new; they’d been reported and corroborated in bits and pieces for years. The magazine simply pointed out that Mam’s personal narrative as a survivor of sex trafficking and the similar stories that emerged from both clients and staff at the non-governmental organization (NGO) she founded to assist survivors of sex trafficking, were often unverifiable, if not outright lies.
Panic ensued. Mam had helped establish, for US audiences, key plot points in the narrative of trafficking and its future eradication. Her story is that she was forced into labor early in life by someone she called “Grandfather,” who then sold off her virginity and forced her into a child marriage. Later she says she was sold to a brothel where she watched several contemporaries die in violence. Childhood friends and even family members couldn’t verify Mam’s recollection of events for Newsweek, but Mam has suggested that her story is typical of trafficking victims.
Mam has also cultivated a massive global network of anti-trafficking NGOs, funders and supporters, who have based their missions, donations and often life’s work on her emotional – but fabricated – tale. Some distanced themselves from the Cambodian activist last spring, including her long-time supporter at The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof, while others suggested that even if untrue, Mam’s stories were told in support of a worthy cause and were therefore true enough.