Somaly Mam shoots for redemption with 'new' organization

Somaly Mam (right) speaks with Sheryl Sandberg (left), Facebook’s chief operating officer during the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit in California, United States. Mam has launched a new organization called The New Somaly Mam Fund. Photo by: Fortune Live Media / CC BY-NC-ND

Will Somaly Mam’s new attempt to set up an anti-trafficking organization be enough to put the controversies of the past year behind?

This is the conundrum that the infamous anti-trafficking champion finds herself in as she embarks on a new journey for redemption with the establishment of a new organization called the New Somaly Mam Fund. While it took some time for the Cambodian icon to break her silence, the new organization is an attempt to show that the advocate still has supporters who believe in her quest to fight modern slavery and human trafficking worldwide.

A statement from the organization’s website notes the group was “created by friends of Somaly Mam” who recognize the good she has done in the anti-human trafficking and slavery movement, and that these people would want her to continue to do good.

Mam found herself in a firestorm last year, following reports that she allegedly fabricated her story of being a sex slave. There were accounts that claim she pushed several Somaly Mam Foundation beneficiaries — mostly young women who were trafficked as sex slaves — to lie about their own narratives as well, mainly to encourage more support for the foundation and attract funding from the international development community.

The controversy led to her resignation from her eponymous organization and to the withdrawal of financial support from several donors. By September 2014, the Somaly Mam Foundation had to shutter its doors.

Although she chose to stay mum for a time, Mam remained staunchly defiant. Following a September article by Marie Claire defending her against all the allegations, the sex slavery icon sent out a public letter in December last year to discuss two things: the launch of her new organization and her attempt to clear her name.

“Many hurtful and inaccurate allegations were made about me, and my work, [but] the [Somaly Mam] foundation did nothing to dispel them, appeared to endorse them, and ultimately forced me to resign,” she said in the letter. “I cannot change what the foundation chose to do, but I can do everything in my power to help the … victims.”

But will the new organization outlive and survive the seemingly tainted image of the person it owes its name and cause to?

All about the issue, not the person

While the controversy that hounded Mam left a bitter taste in the international development community, officials of the new organization will have to find a way to get past the intrigue and carry out its mission to rescue young women from human trafficking.

“The [new organization] was created to ensure that the young women and children who are victims of sexual violence, trafficking, indentured slavery and exploitation can get the help they need to recover and to live healthy and sustainable lives,” Rigmor Schneider, the group’s executive director, told Devex.

Schneider, who was SMF’s former operations and interim executive director, said the “sudden withdrawal of funding” that “caused a critical funding gap and jeopardized the welfare of the center residents and the ongoing operations” led to the establishment of this new organization.

While funding be one of the biggest challenges for NSMF moving forward, the executive director said the real test will be in re-establishing relationships with donors and partners despite allegations against Somaly Mam.

“Every startup has its challenges. Ours is being able to raise funds quickly to support ongoing operational needs while building a new infrastructure,” she explained. The organization will have two offices: one in Texas for fundraising efforts and another in Cambodia (where local affiliate AFESIP is) for daily slavery and trafficking rehabilitation operations. “Establishing a nonprofit and securing tax-exempt status and reestablishing donor relationships is a long and cumbersome process.”

Despite the obvious falling out between Mam and SMF during the past few months, Schneider explained that NSMF will continue to build on the achievements of the now-defunct organization and go a step further to do more with less as they will try to “operate on a much smaller scale.”

“By combining [the work] of [AFESIP and SMF through NSMF], we are reducing redundancies and operating costs. One of our main objectives is to shorten the length of time that a woman or girl stays in a recovery center,” she explained, adding that more operational diversification will be implemented for the organization later on.

But how will the issue of transparency be dealt with in the future? Schneider said a financial services organization will be brought in to deal with monetary matters while also establishing an online accounting system so donors and supporters can see where and how funds are spent.

“We invite donors and other interested parties to become more familiar and knowledgeable with our work firsthand rather than believing in the untrue stories that are circulated in the press,” she concluded. “We are committing to transparency and to provide our donors a tangible method by which they can assess our progress.”

Will the New Somaly Mam Fund be able to successfully navigate the controversy surrounding its famous icon and regain the trust of the international development community? Let us know by sharing your thoughts below.

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About the author

  • Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.