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Thursday, May 29, 2014

My Feelings About The Somaly Mam Controversy

Yesterday, the official announcement of Somaly Mam's resignation from her namesake foundation was made.  I find this news to be disheartening.  Somaly Mam is a woman who I personally view as a role model.  Although I have not lived a life similar to hers, her courage and strength is a source of inspiration for me.

For those who don't know, who Somaly Mam is, she grew her "fame" after founding the Somaly Mam The Road to Lost Innocence" which chronicles her life from orphan to sex slave to freedom fighter.  Her foundation's goal is to free sex trafficking victims and empower them to live healthy happy lives.
Foundation and writing her book "

So what's the issue? Clearly this is a noble cause...  Well, I for one, couldn't agree more.  Somaly Mam and her foundation have been responsible for a great deal of the awareness raising, not just in the US, but around the world.  Of course she isn't alone, but SMF is the largest Anti-Sex Trafficking group out there, to the best of my knowledge. Unlike most US specific groups which focus purely on raising awareness and aiding girls/women here, SMF works around the world to raise awareness and in three countries (that I know of).  According to their website, in collaboration with on the ground partners, SMF has:

  • Touched the lives of nearly 100,000 women and girls in need
  • Led effective programs that have helped thousands of victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation –– some as young as three years old –– to heal and rebuild their lives with hope, confidence, and dignity
  • Engaged over 6,400 students in anti-trafficking activism
  • Treated over 6,000 women and girls at a free medical clinic in Phnom Penh’s red light district
  • Distributed more that 4.3 million condoms through our community outreach teams in areas where sex is sold
  • Trained high-ranking military police and government officials from all 24 provinces in Cambodia on anti-trafficking law
  • Raised global awareness of human trafficking – one of humanity’s most insidious and troubling problems
And NO ONE is in anyway arguing these facts.  What they are questioning however is the story which Somaly Mam has claimed to be her own.  Newsweek's "Somaly Mam: The Holy Saint (or Sinner) of Sex Trafficking," brought that question to the public by accusing both Somaly and some of her "girls" of publicizing fictional stories in an effort to raise funds and educate the public.  The article sites testimony from supposed childhood acquaintances, teachers and local officials who claim Somaly's life story is generally fiction. Additional questions are raised about the stories of some of her more vocal "girls." Some of their accusations seem to be rather well founded, coming from individuals within the organization, similar organisations and even from one of the "girls" themselves.  

To be honest, I can understand why some people are finding themselves feeling betrayed.  A great many people got involved with Somaly Mam and similar foundations or causes because of the stories which Somaly has put out there.  And quite frankly when you read (or hear) a story like the ones she and her girls have shared, it's difficult not to want to get involved.  But that's the point isn't it?  

And I can understand why people are upset, they feel they've been duped, and no one likes feeling that way. But my question is this - WOULD all the good that her foundation has done, have been done without her and her "tactics?"  I'm not excusing the lies.  If in fact she has done the things she is accused of, I will be the first to say she did things wrong.  And I generally agree that in most cases the "ends don't justify the means." BUT, I'm a greater good type. And I feel that, although she may have gone about things wrongly, the impact that she has made world wide is undeniable.  

So yes, she should have gone about things differently.  She should have allowed the truth to speak for itself - gods know it's bad enough without embellishment.  But the stories she has put out there are true for many, even if they are not necessarily true for the individuals speaking them.  Somaly may not have been used and abused the way she says, maybe in fact the vast majority of her "girls" stories aren't their own.  But they are stories that DO belong to someone.  Every day, in nearly every country around the world, girls are taken from their homes, schools or even public places like malls and forced in to prostitution or sexual slavery. They are abused, beaten, raped, and sometimes killed.  So if HER story isn't completely true, SO WHAT! With that story she has been able to provide aid to thousands of girls directly and has raised awareness on the issue of trafficking everywhere - opening doors for thousands more to gain help. 

No, the way she has done things is not ideal. And Yes, she should have come out and been honest from the start.  But I have to wonder if she had done so, would her foundation have had the ability to do all the good it's done in the world? Would the millions of people her story has touched ever even become aware of the horrors of human trafficking?  No one can answer these questions with any real certainty...  But I tend to believe that this was her purpose, this was her path.  And regardless of whether or not she went about it the "right way" or not, she did a huge service for women around the world - which is something that the vast majority of her critics can not say! 

So I, for one, will continue to support the Somaly Mam Foundation, and wish the best for Somaly and all of her "girls." In my opinion, they are all inspirations in their own way.  It greatly saddens me to see such an uprising against women who are clearly doing all they can to create positive change.

Now, I have taken some hits for standing with SMF on this matter.  When I first got the news I made a point to Tweet @SomalyMam saying that I felt Newsweek should be ashamed at themselves for targeting a charity that's doing such good work. I also expressed my disappointment in Somaly's choice to step down... Then it was "let the hate mail roll in" day.  Within a few minutes of tweeting, I had 16 "notifications" all from angry people who felt I am some kind of women hating idiot.  One of my "favorites" was from a woman who seemed to feel that Somaly, is in fact herself a trafficker. And more than once now I've heard about how she "victimizes" the very girls she supposedly "saves" simply because she has them tell their stories.  But I was a "good girl" I didn't respond, I didn't bate them.  Instead, I made a donation. And if the other tweets and comments to the SMF Facebook Page are any indication, I'm sure I'm not the only one.  That, is something that I am happy to see. But I am afraid that the long term repercussions of this will affect, not just on this specific charity, but on the entire Anti-Trafficking movement.

In the end though I feel as if I just watched my hero do a slow motion fall from grace.  But I do not question my feelings about the movement as a whole. The facts are these - girls and women (as well as young men in some cases) are being forced in to prostitution and sex slavery.  Their stories are tragic and horrifying, and they deserve better! They deserve a world where they can feel safe.  And maybe the SMF went about things in a way that is less than perfect, but they ARE making a difference!  And that, I believe, is more reason to stand by them than their flaws are reason to walk away and turn on them when they need support most.  

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