In her memoir, "The Road of Lost Innocence," Somaly Mam tells a tragic but triumphant story of her girlhood as a Cambodian orphan who is taken by an older man and sold for her virginity — then forced into a marriage with a soldier and sold again into a brothel in Phnom Pehn before fighting her way to freedom.
Now several of these claims are being questioned. A Newsweek cover story last week featured an expose of Mam and shows that parts of her story appear to have been distorted.
The New York-based Somaly Mam Foundation, which is backed by companies such as Estee Lauder and Goldman Sachs, released a statement from the executive director, Gina Reiss-Wilchins, saying that Mam's resignation was accepted after the foundation received findings of a two-month investigation it had comissioned. Findings of the investigation were not published.
"While we are extremely saddened by this news, we remain grateful to Somaly's work over the past two decades and for helping to build a foundation that has served thousands of women and girls and has raised critical awareness of the nearly 21 million individuals who are currently enslaved today," wrote Reiss-Wilchins on the foundation's website.
Claims that have come under scrutiny include a story about her daughter being kidnapped by traffickers as retaliation for her work, and a claim that eight girls were kidnapped and murdered from one of her refugee camps in Cambodia in 2004, according to the AP.
Whistleblowers include some colleagues and her ex-husband, who helped found her original activist organization in France, AFESIP. News of the scandal has been especially disappointing because of the importance of Mam's work.
Journalist Mariane Pearl made Mam's work wide-known in a Glamour magazine story in 2006, in which she visited Mam in Phnom-Penh and witnessed young girls that Pearl described as "babies" being sold to brothels.
"The work of the foundation and our grant partners must and will carry on," said the statement. "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."
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