Newsweek recently outed world-renowned anti-human trafficking activist Somaly Mam for falsifications in her life story, and for using young girls to tell their stories of sexual exploitation, despite the fact that they had not been victims of sex trafficking.
Somaly Mam has generated the support of celebrities, journalists, and government officials around the world. The combination of her heroic work and her chilling tale plus the fact that she was beautiful and committed to ending sexual slavery, earned her the respect and support of thousands. It is beyond devastating to hear that not only has she been dishonest, she has exploited the trust placed in her by many well intentioned individuals through her dishonesty.
Her story rings eerily similar to that of Three Cups of Tea co-author Greg Mortenson, whose financial misdeeds and tall-tales even earned him an e-book written to dethrone him from humanitarian heroism. Greg Mortenson was exposed for having lied about significant portions of his story of travelling in Pakistan, and about the schools he built for children in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He had been internationally acknowledged for his incredible work when everything came tumbling down.
When it comes to development, there seems to be two sinkholes – the area of finances, and the area of truth-telling – that seem to generate a great deal of danger for our heroes. It may well be the label of ‘heroism’ in itself that places individuals into danger of falling so far in the first place.
Perhaps there is a pressure to tell a bigger, better, more dramatic story in order to generate the attention and media needed to get resources allocated to their projects. Perhaps the big story is justified in the mind of the story-teller, and the next time it gets just a little more dramatic. Perhaps once the money comes rolling in; the resources are needed, the prestige is addictive, and it would be worse to tell the truth then to keep living the lie. After all, it is for a good cause. And as we fan the flame of fame for these ‘good, heroic’ individuals we create a need for ourselves to also hear more drama to justify giving to good work.
The thing is, anti-trafficking work, development work, aid and relief work, are more often than not, less exciting, less dramatic, and less heroic then most of us want to accept. Perhaps if we think that only those with incredible tales can succeed in these areas, it lets the rest of us off the hook from doing good because we just aren’t as ‘super’ as those ‘heroes’. But as both Somaly Mam and Greg Mortenson remind us, there are no perfect people.
There are people who make mistakes and there are the people who trusted them and end up disappointed.
No wonder so many donors refrain from being generous for fear; of being made a fool, of wasting their resources, of giving to liars and cheats. Instead we end up cynical, removing ourselves emotionally and financially from the needs of people around the world because we just can’t trust anyone. We even go so far as to wonder if their causes are legitimate or are also trumped up and fabricated?
That is of course, the most devastating part of Somaly Mam’s situation. Because genuinely helping women recover from abuse and exploitation is incredibly important work. Just like providing access to education for girls in rural communities is an honourable call. Despite the fact that certain people became celebrities for their work and subsequently broke our trust, does not mean the need is not there.
Perhaps an even greater shame is the doubt it casts over survivors who tell their stories of sex trafficking. Telling a story of abuse is one of the bravest acts an individual can do. Many times fear, shame, and the feeling that they may not be believed all contribute to keeping their story secret. Other individuals lying about abuse and trafficking leads to silencing of those who have genuinely been exploited.
I have read some criticism asking how Somaly Mam and the girls who shared their stories got away with being dishonest, people claim it was poor journalism not to look deeper into their tales. Perhaps so, but it would also be poor journalism to badger a survivor who is sharing their story.
I am not saying we believe every story at face value. When we worked with the police in Cape Town, most girls told two or three stories before we got a little bit of truth out of them. That is the nature of the abused. Because of this, I can absolutely understand why so many people were duped by Somaly Mam. When a woman tells you she was raped, or forced into prostitution, we rarely ask… “are you sure you are telling the truth?” The very nature of asking that question feels disrespectful, especially when we are looking to create an environment of safety and openness.
But I truly believe a shift needs to come in the way aid and development work is presented in the media. A shift away from drama, away from a good-vs-evil paradigm, a shift away from ‘heroism’ and celebrity. The same shift needs to happen in the presentation of sex trafficking and slavery issues. Telling the extreme cases of violence and force does not help public perception and understanding of a complex form of exploitation.
I am absolutely grieved that dishonesty has taken place within Somaly Mam’s work, but there is no one to blame but her. Not journalists or those who cheered her on, not those who gave money or went to volunteer at her organisation. She lied and through that she has hurt the cause. But the cause still exists. Her lies do nothing to diminish the fact that women and girls are in need, or that sex trafficking exists. One woman’s lies and mistakes do not take away from the many girls who stories are real and who need committed individuals to cheer them on.
So let’s move away from drama and celebrity. Let’s stop making anti-trafficking work so sexy.
But let us not stop being generous, let us not stop advocating for the stories of the oppressed to be heard, let us not stop supporting those who do the important work to uplift and liberate those trapped in cycles of abuse.
Just like Greg Mortenson’s lies do not mean we need to stop investing in education around the world, Somaly Mam’s lies do not mean we stop investing in the anti-human trafficking movement. Unfortunately there is no totally secure way to ensure that we are not being duped by someone. There are guidelines and there are ways to research an organisation, but in a case like Somaly Mam’s I don’t think there was any way for the majority of us to know whether or not she was being truthful. We are not at fault for that.
Keep giving, keep being open, keep listening, keep caring about issues of slavery and exploitation. Somaly Mam will be responsible for her actions, you will be responsible for yours.