News and analysis
October 14, 2014

Somaly Mam Foundation Shutters Operations

The Somaly Mam Foundation, an anti-human trafficking organization that was thrust into the spotlight earlier this year after its namesake founder was accused of fabricating parts of her personal biography as a trafficking victim, has been shuttered.

In a message addressed to its supporters that was released Friday afternoon, the foundation board said that as of September 30 it had ceased all operations, ended all grant making, and "permanently closed our doors."

"There are many outstanding organizations that share these values while dedicated to the eradication of trafficking and slavery," the statement said. "We decided that going forward, the right opportunity for our staff and our supporters would be to support those many great organizations."

The board thanked its supporters, while rallying them to the fight against human trafficking.

"While we are disappointed not to continue to work together directly, we are hopeful that your commitment to end slavery will carry on," the statement said. "There are nearly 29 million victims of trafficking enslaved across the globe, and they need our support now more than ever."

Telephone calls to the Somaly Mam Foundation’s offices in New York went unanswered. The organization had an affiliate organization in Cambodia called Agir Pour Les Femmes en Situation Précaire, or Afesip. Its status is unclear.

A Founder Under Fire

The Somaly Mam Foundation was founded in 2007 by the anti-human trafficking activist, Somaly Mam. She shot to fame in the 2000s, becoming the face of the international anti-trafficking movement, riding her own story as a former child trafficking victim in her native Cambodia. She was photographed with celebrities on red carpets. Her work was featured by journalists, including The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.

But questions about the veracity of some accounts of exploitation as told by Ms. Mam and girls she said she had rescued, began to surface a few years ago. An international investigation reported by Simon Marks and published by Newsweek in May laid bare the deception. Ms. Mam was not a child slave, as she had described in interviews and in "The Road of Lost Innocence," her autobiography that helped cement her profile. She was an ordinary village schoolgirl, according to several sources. At least two girls that Ms. Mam said she rescued from traffickers had apparently been coached to tell gripping, fictional stories of sexual violence to journalists and others. And Ms. Mam’s daughter wasn’t kidnapped and raped in retaliation for her anti-trafficking work, as she has claimed. The teenager apparently ran away with a boyfriend.

One week after the Newsweek story published, the Somaly Mam Foundation said in a statement that Ms. Mam had resigned. It referenced the findings of a two-month independent investigation into her "personal history" and said it was "extremely saddened by this news" but stopped short of confirming that Ms. Mam had lied. The foundation also said it had permanently removed one of the women Ms. Mam claimed to have rescued from any affiliation with the organization.

In June, the foundation released another statement saying that a "rebranding, renaming, and re-launching" of the organization was forthcoming. The survival of the foundation would depend on the commitment level of its staff and donors to the mission, experts told The Chronicle.

The Somaly Mam Foundation had revenue of $2.7-million in 2012, according to its most recent available informational tax form filed with the Internal Revenue Service. Ms. Mam worked an average of 75 hours a week, according to the IRS filing. She took no salary from the foundation but did receive $138,253 in other compensation from the foundation and other organizations, possibly the Cambodian affiliate, Afesip.

In the statement released Friday, the foundation board made no mention of Somaly Mam, her personal biography, or the Newsweek investigation.

"We believe strongly in an organization driven by transparency, integrity and service," the statement said. "We’ve reflected on these values and our purpose to identify the best path forward to continue our critical work."

The foundation’s supporters remain "an essential advocate" for creating better world, the statement continued.

"Our shared dream to end trafficking is one worth fighting for—and the work has only just begun."

Send an email to Megan O’Neil.