I work with a group in Cambodia, and we have referred clients to and from AFESIP. We also have ex-AFESIP staff. It's important to remember that AFESIP is not the Somaly Mom Foundation any longer, but one of the NGOs funded by SMF. Both have similar funding problems: lot of money coming in and going to staff instead of operations and placing fundraising above the safety and dignity of their clients.
AFESIP is not the worst place and not the best, just average. They are one of the best funded and known though. They should be much better.
SMF is very overpaid at the top and fundraising driven. The stories told are packaged to be shocking and easily understood with clear villains and heroes.
The reality of trafficking in Cambodia is that it is usually small-scale and not by large criminal gangs like in Russia for example. The trafficker will be someone who lives in the same village. Families sell their teenagers knowing where they will go. Medical and gambling debt is the biggest cause of trafficking. There are not enough jobs for barely educated young people in Cambodia.
Also, boys are sexually abused in very high rates in Cambodia. And Westerners and Asian tourists pay the most, but the local demand is the majority for sex work.
Somaly Mam has been pushing an idea of chained up children in brothels that no longer exists but raises funds.
It is much more likely to be a 'godfather' who grooms a child and then 'marries' them as a young teenager, to abandon them a few years later. There are brothels everywhere, but the sex workers have more physical freedom now and are kept in debt to keep them working. Why torture someone when you can give them a zero-interest loan and have them work without complaint?
The reality is more complicated and difficult to fix. You can't do a brothel-raid and rescue the girls and then two years later, set them up as hairdressers.
The article is no surprise to anyone working in Cambodia. What it misses out on is how much damage SMF (and Kristoff) are doing through this false narrative to the people trying to help and the people being hurt in human trafficking.
Boys on streets, young women choosing sex work through family pressure and lack of employment, and grooming and forced early marriage, fishing and domestic servant abuse - that's where the majority of trafficking and exploitation is now.
But I get asked about donating for rescued brothel girls ALL THE TIME. And then I have to explain that no, that doesn't exist now, it's actually these boys and this young bride who need help - people go back to SMF because she offers such a compelling false story.
And I am angry at Somaly for putting false stories out there instead of using all your media access to put real stories of Cambodian sex workers and trafficking survivors out. Their stories are messier but they are true. You don't get to be their voice when they can have their own voices if it meant turning the spotlight on them.
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