What We Can Learn from the Somaly Mam Scandal

 | Mon 30 Jun 2014 21:28 ICT

As a longtime supporter of Somaly Mam Foundation (SMF) and AFESIP in Cambodia, I was deeply saddened to read in Simon Marks’ recent Newsweek piece that we have been lied to. And to make matters worse, instead of having their amazingly talented PR team craft a humble apology, SMF founder Somaly Mam and Somana (a.k.a. Long Pross, the alleged sexual slave turned SMF spokesperson who repeatedly shared a disturbing personal story that has now been mostly disproved) took the fall and SMF told donors to keep giving. 

Somaly Mam

The executive director assured supporters that the organization will be “rebranding, renaming, and re-launching our organisation.” But it feels like they are missing the point. This highlights several systemic issues within the anti-human-trafficking movement.  SMF’s Facebook wall was covered in messages of support from starstruck supporters saying things like, “I really don’t care whether her story of her past is true or not. I only care that the work she is doing now is making the difference it is.” 

Really, honesty doesn’t matter?  I think it’s okay to expect more from Somaly than that. I hope she learns from the experience and continues to galvanise and inspire people in the future.  Foundations raising millions should know that honesty and ethics are paramount to raising funds.

The Savior-Victim Dynamic

Somaly stands by her story but also resigned. Perhaps she was just another bar girl from a war-torn country where 40 percent of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day. Is it shocking she can tell every westerner what they want to hear? Victims’ stories are used to make other people feel like heroes. Somana’s face (with one eye gouged out, she claimed, by an angry pimp) was put on display for tragedy porn so others could be her saviors. 

As long as there is demand for the saddest story, organisations desperate for money will parade around the saddest victim and offer “tours” of orphanages and safe houses. Donating money to “rescue” a “victim” asks less of society than changing the structural conditions that facilitate trafficking. To be effective and ethical, the movement needs to be about empowering the population they are serving, not serving donors’ egos. Everything possible should be done to avoid neutralisation and revealing the identities of the people who have been exploited.

Be Careful About How We Tell the Story of Human Trafficking

Journalists and anti-trafficking organisations have the power to define trafficking, but there needs to be a balance of stories, not just a single story. Typically, the media and anti-trafficking organisations like to focus on the most gut-wrenching emotional stories, but not the sociopolitical forces behind them. Trafficking narratives often feature very young, innocent (often white) girls as victims who need to be rescued by donors from an evil pimp. Not only is this misleading, but these stories reflect sexist paternalistic overtones in society that make girls vulnerable sexual exploitation and violence.  

The majority of survivors of commercial sexual exploitation (in the case that Somaly was a consenting sex worker) do suffer extreme trauma, but their stories go unheard. They don’t make magazine covers or hang out with celebrities and are often excluded from the movement. Their pain is not  spectacular enough. 

Sensationalised media coverage distracts from the understanding of the issue as a whole and points donors toward simplistic non-sustainable solutions. If trafficking is to be ended, trafficking stories need to be told as the predictable consequences of poverty, discrimination, unjust policies and war.

I don’t know what repercussions this scandal will have in the future. I worry about Somana and how this will affect the rest of her life. For all the honest people working tirelessly to end trafficking, it will be just a bit harder, as this casts doubt in the minds of potential supporters. I fear that the worst part of this scandal is that it will make it even more difficult for survivors to come forward, and have credibility. I hope that everyone in the movement can make this a teaching moment and move forward, paying closer attention to their programmes and ethics instead of their founder’s story.

Alexa Pham is the co-founder and programme director of Daughters Rising, a Chiang Mai based nonprofit dedicated to preventing sex trafficking by empowering at-risk girls through education. This article was originally published in her Daughters Rising blog.