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Scandal Detracts from True Trafficking Problem, Rights Workers Say

  • Men Kimseng
  • VOA Khmer

Cambodia remains a country mired in the problem of sex trafficking, where inequality and poor educations leave entire communities susceptible to the crime.

Cambodian sex trafficking was thrust into the limelight earlier this month, when a Newsweek expose uncovered a series of lies and exaggerations made by Somaly Mam, a Cambodian woman whose anti-trafficking efforts made her an international celebrity.

Mam has resigned from the New York-based foundation bearing her name, and numerous journalists and pundits have weighed in on her story.

But in Cambodia, trafficking remains a huge problem, rights workers say, one that might only get worse.

Prostitution is widespread, in karaoke clubs, brothels, bars and even in public parks. Poverty provides ample opportunity for recruiters with false promises, who prey on families who are poor and uneducated, for sex trafficking or forced labor.
Cambodian and Vietnamese young women and girls are trafficked throughout the country as sex workers. Young men find their ways into slave-conditions, in farms or aboard fishing boats.

Cambodian and Vietnamese young women and girls are trafficked throughout the country as sex workers. Young men find their ways into slave-conditions, in farms or aboard fishing boats.


Cambodian and Vietnamese young women and girls are trafficked throughout the country as sex workers. Young men find their ways into slave-conditions, in farms or aboard fishing boats.

“We see that human trafficking seems not to go down, so long as there is still a job gap in Cambodia,” Ya Navuth, executive director of Caram Cambodia, told VOA Khmer. That will be of special concerns once Cambodia economically integrates with Asean, he said. More funding is needed to save more victims, he said, and to heal their mental wounds.

And other forms of trafficking are emerging.

“Now we see there is a new method, which is forced marriages, happening in Korea and China,” Thun Saray, president of the rights group Adhoc said. “Our young women are cheated to get married in China or Korea, where they are abused mentally and physically.”

Rights workers say these problems demand attention and funding. Until last month, the leading champion for anti-trafficking was Mam Somaly. She was, according to her story, an escaped sex slave who worked to free girls from imprisonment in brothels. Her efforts were praised in the US media, she attended international galas, and her foundation raised a lot of money.

But the Newsweek expose cast doubt on Mam’s own story, while Cambodian women came forward in the media to claim they lied about their own lives at Mam’s behest.

In a statement May 28, Gina Reiss-Wilchins, executive director of the Somaly Mam Foundation, said an independent investigation had been conducted into Mam’s personal history, and the foundation had accepted her resignation. (Mam has stood by her story.)

“Despite our heartfelt disappointment, the work of the Foundation and our grant partners must and will carry on,” Reiss-Wilchins wrote. “We have touched the lives of over 100,000 women and girls. We have treated nearly 6,000 individuals at a free medical clinic in Phnom Penh’s red light district and engaged nearly 6,400 students in anti-trafficking activism.”

The foundation would continue its work, she said.

That could include support of Afesip, a local NGO that says it helps rescued brothel workers be rehabilitated.

Sao Chhourth, executive director of Afesip, told VOA Khmer this work is always hard. Victims of trafficking are illiterate, have no job skills and are traumatized. If the private sector is willing to give them jobs, they can recover, Sao Chhourth said.

In the end, it remains to be seen how the foundation will continue its work without Mam, who was a high-profile figure for the organization. Mam’s story, meanwhile, is becoming a cautionary tale in truth-telling.

Still, Ya Navuth says that despite her fall, Mam and the foundation that carried her name “saved a lot of men and women who had fallen victim to trafficking overseas,” putting a dent in a sophisticated and shadowy trade.
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