Somaly Mam: Saint and Sinner

In my high school (a very ethical and globally informed place), we watched part of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, a documentary based on a movement that seeks to put an end to the oppression of women and girls. The clip above is about Somaly Mam and the Somaly Mam Foundation in Cambodia.

Somaly Mam is a Cambodian author and human rights activist, focusing on sex-trafficking. She's received many awards and honors, including carrying the Olympic flag at the 2006 Olympics in Italy, the U.S. State Department's "Heroes of Anti-Trafficking" award, and being named one of TIME's 100 most influential people in 2009 and one of The Guardian's top 100 women in 2011.

Somaly works with young girls who have been sex slaves in Cambodia. As she partially explains in the clip, doesn't know her real name or age. She was abused by her grandfather until she was approximately 14, sold to a brothel, forced into prostitution, and forced to marry a stranger. Her story isn't that different from the girls she works with; at 5:14 in the video, we hear the girls in the foundation singing songs that about their lives in the brothels. At 7:55, we meet a girl, Long Pross, who had her eye gouged out by a brothel owner. All of these girls have found comfort with Somaly and the foundation, many having been rejected from their families.

Except it's not true. Newsweek released an article at the end of last month about Somaly Mam, accusing the stories of being fabricated. Pross never had her eye gouged out, rather, medical records show the removal of a malignant tumor. She was one of many girls who had auditioned and rehearsed her story under Mam's instruction. Mam's own story is fake as well. Newsweek revealed that she lived with her family, graduated from high school, was well-liked and never abused or forced into prostitution. Everything seems to be a well crafted lie for attention and sympathy, a distorted interpretation of the actual problem. (Mam claimed girls as young as 3 are being held in brothers during an interview in 2012, but experts in the field say that's unheard of. Prepubescent girls are rarely kept in brothels, though there is a steady supply of 14-17 year olds.)

Some people aren't surprised. After all, Mam's details haven't all lined up. She made false claims in front of the UN, reinvented her facts in different interviews, and changed her story every time she told it. But some people refuse to believe the exposé, still believing Mam and her mission to be holy. Regardless, she resigned as president of her foundation.

I don't think it matters if she's holy or not, or even truthful or not. It's not about her. It's about her mission. She was exposed, she resigned. Her story is over. Whether or not her story was fake, her work has helped to draw attention to and build a foundation that has served thousands of women and girls. The foundation has affected over 100,000 girls, treated nearly 6,000 individuals at a free medical clinic in Phnom Penh’s red light district and engaged nearly 6,400 students in anti-trafficking activism.

There are nearly 21 million individuals who are still enslaved today, and their stories are real. Her eponymous foundation released a statement about her resignation, and reaffirms their mission:

"We don't expect this transition to be simple, but we ask that you stand with us in the face of these serious challenges and help us to honor all victims and survivors, and the millions of women and girls who are enslaved across the globe."

Somaly's lies aren't important. The mission still is. You can get involved with her foundation here, and with the Half the Sky Movement here.

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