Somaly Mam: Exploiting the Exploited?

Perhaps you have heard in recent weeks the “fall” of Somaly Mam and the fallout thereafter. There have been questions and allegations regarding Somaly Mam and her self-named foundation for quite some time, but it finally came to a head when Newsweek published this report on 21 May. Somaly then resigned from her post soon after. The reactions have been pretty strong, and coming from a variety of perspectives.

I’m not going to tell you what to think or believe, but I do hope to challenge you to consider what happened and why. I want to challenge you to continue to challenge what you hear and see.

Firstly, I want to you to read what Helen Sworn wrote about it. Helen is the founder and executive director of the Chab Dai Coalition in Cambodia, and is the best person I know to comment on this situation. Her post on the Chab Dai blog is thought provoking and provides a sound perspective, especially since she has lived in Cambodia for 15 years.

Yes, there were lies. Yes there were fabrications and exaggerations. If her story is true, even a little bit true about her being a sex slave, then her behavior pattern of lying to conform to the wishes of those more powerful than her (journalists, donors, celebrities) fits with the behavior pattern of so many other trafficked women.

I’m not absolving Somaly of culpability, but I will extend a lot more sympathy to Somaly than I will others involved in her rise to stardom. Let’s face it, human trafficking has become a “cause celebre” and many have joined the bandwagon without doing proper homework on the subject of horribly and chronically traumatized people.

Take, for example, someone like Nicholas Kristof who, despite his numerous years of working with Somaly Mam failed to acknowledge any of the questions being raised about her. In any case, some of his dubious practices as a journalist (tweeting through a brothel raid, for example) make me question his integrity anyway. Many of you know that Kristof has put Somaly on a pedestal for quite some time. Perhaps he and the many other journalists and celebrities helped keep her propped up there. If you are interested, this is what Kristof had to say about the recent fall-out. Another take on this is in the Huffington Post.

Next, you will find this provocative article in Salon scathes Kristof and others in this whole process. However, I don’t agree with the author’s entire assessment of the counter-trafficking movement and the hard work being done by many large and small organizations. Even so there needs to be a long hard look by everyone: donors, media, NGOs, and the general public about how, where, and why something like what happened with Somaly Mam was allowed to continue and fester. I assure you that there are many more situations like this around the world.

WHAT??!!??!! Do-gooders exploiting the exploited to make a point? Happens all the time. I won’t digress into what could be a very long post, but I’ll let you click over to this article about orphantourism in Cambodia, as well as this one, and over here as well for you to think about how everyday people can contribute to this problem. Although Cambodia is highlighted here, I can report that this is a worldwide issue.

The recent events regarding Somaly Mam can catalyze our abolition movement to be more professional with more evaluation and monitoring. Our donors should be asking hard questions of us and we should strive for doing the best we can with the highest integrity, even if we can get away with less when working in certain countries. We also (with good intentions) also need to be careful not to exploit the exploited.

Healing of a chronically traumatized person is long term and multi-dimensional. We should be strongly advocating for holistic (bio/psycho/social) care and rehabilitation of the beneficiaries. We need to ensure that our beneficiaries are receiving the time and care and empowerment they need to have a thriving life ever after.




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