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In Wake of Scandal, Activist Defends Her Work

Author and human rights advocate Somaly Mam attends the Somaly Mam Foundation Gala on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013 in New York. (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP)

Anti-sex trafficking activist Mam Somaly defends her background and her work, saying she didn’t lie about how she became a victim of sex slavery, but admitted that she made mistakes in her leadership.

Mam Somaly became the head of a self-named organization dedicated to ending the sex trade and rescuing women ensnared in it. She became a celebrity, and found the support of major international actors.

But a Newsweek story published in May cast doubt on her origin story, and she later resigned from the Somaly Mam Foundation.

In an exclusive interview with VOA Khmer, Mam Somaly defended her story and her work. She denied allegations that she lied.

“No woman would simply claim she was a former sex worker,” she said. “It’s impossible. As we know, the words ‘sex worker’ ruins our dignity. I need everybody to understand that.”

But Mam Somaly said she did not want to confront the magazine. “Why should I fight back?” she said.

“I’ve been abused since I was a kid,” she said. “That’s the first thing. And second, I think people can see who is lying and who is still working every day. I’m working every day with children. I don’t want to claim what is good. I want the Cambodian people to judge whether or not this is good. I was born not to be loved by everybody, but to take care of those who share the same life as me.”

Mam Somaly also disputed reports of a key discrepancy, that of Long Pross, a former employee who once told media she had lost the use of one eye after she was beaten by a brothel owner. Newsweek reported that loss was in fact due to a tumor.

Mam Somaly said she stands by the original version. “Her eye got wounded in a brothel, and whether the brothel owner pierced her eye or not, she is still a victim. What I did was to provide her care and love.”

She said she left the Somaly Mam Foundation because they asked her to recant her story. “They said I was not forced to be a sex worker,” she said. “They don’t understand how we feel. They don’t know our backgrounds clearly.”

She said she had nothing to gain by lying about her past.

“I feel so much pain when I recall my past,” she said. “When a foreigner talks badly about me, I don’t feel hurt. But if a Cambodian says it, I feel so hurt.”

The Somaly Mam Foundation is closed for good. But Mam Somaly said she learned something there.

“I made a lot of mistakes in my leadership,” she said. “These I have to improve myself.”