Clare Tan was a volunteer for AFESIP, the Cambodian organization which protects vulnerable women founded by Somaly. In this article, orginally published on her blog, she talks about feeling torn between the inspiration which this woman once was for her, and the revelations which have emerged over several years about who her hero really may have been.
There are many articles flying around, I have lost track of what I have read in recent days because they are all basically saying the same thing about Somaly Mam in different ways. They have attracted huge international media attention, since as most things, when something well known and American gives it attention, in this case Newsweek, the rest of the world then gives it attention. A quick Google News search shows articles from the last week or two about Somaly's 'lies' and resignation in Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, German, Russian to name but a few. However, articles casting doubts on the credibility of Somaly Mam have been appearing in Cambodian local papers for the last couple of years or so, discussing false kidnapping claims and inaccuracies at a UN speech, girls trained to lie on camera and her reputation amongst the NGO world, and in general here in Cambodia, has not been of someone so saintly here for a while now.
I became a huge supporter of Somaly Mam a few years ago. If you'd have asked, I'd have said she was my hero. I was a huge supporter. I didn't know anything about, or to be honest, care too much about Cambodia before her book, yet now I live here and have made my family here. Somaly Mam opened my eyes to the world of sex trafficking, which led me to read more books, talk to more people and discover the whole world of modern day slavery I was completely oblivious too. I then did what I could in my limited power to try to make a tiny difference. Her book,the book that contains stories that are allegedly fabricated, started that. I learnt as much as I could about human trafficking worldwide, worked as an advocate against it, raising awareness in Singapore with Emancipasia, and I cycled 500kms across Cambodia to raise money for a certain foundation, of course, The Somaly Mam Foundation (SMF). Had her book not caught my attention, which it may not have if it had read, 'I was well-known and popular in the small village, a happy, pretty girl with pigtails' as Newsweek's article claims she was, I may not have followed the path I did that brought me to my life now.
The bike ride across Cambodia changed my life, it was hellish, both physically and emotionally. I approached friends and family, filled my Facebook page with videos and stories and quotes, and I managed to raise over $5000 for the foundation, and the cause... or was it just for the foundation? Forgive me for feeling a little bit duped now, when I think back to the most emotional lunch of my life, where we met many of the girls from Voices for Change, the girls who have come to work as advocates for Somaly's work, themselves trafficked, and having come to AFESIP, the Cambodian, on the ground organization that Somaly founded initially, supported, (I later learned) in part only, by SMF. The girls stood in front of us, supporting each other, tearfully telling us their stories. All of us were in tears listening. Even though some of us doubted whether telling their stories was good for them, they all claimed it was part of their healing process. Many of their stories were true. But now, such a huge shadow of doubt has been cast over one of the girl's, Somana's stories, that of course, it makes you wonder? At the time and since then, I have wanted to know what happened to all the money that was raised, because the girls in the shelters, as lovely as they are, in my opinion, even if in keeping with local culture and standard of living, could be living in much nicer conditions.
After spending some time in Cambodia, I learnt that 'sister' and 'brother' is the way Cambodians refer to their elders, whether they know the person or not. The word 'bong', the same for male or female, is used to address not just your actual sister, but waiters and waitresses, tuk tuk drivers, anyone you speak to who appears to be older than you or in a position of seniority. Us, ignorant westerners, at the time, mistook this as the girls thinking of us 'as sisters.' We got all touched and gooey thinking we are so important to these girls that they think we are their sisters. In fact, they referred to us as such because it was out of respect, also, they didn't know our names. I also wondered why these girls from VFC, now 'free', did not have their own phones, were not allowed Facebook pages, and whilst they all hugged so hard and said they missed us and called us sisters, trying to spend time with them out of their working hours was virtually impossible. In the last few months they've slowly been appearing on Facebook. They refer to Somaly as 'mum'. If we as supporters feel disappointed in her, imagine how those who did not know about any of this, will be feeling right now.
I don't care to say that Somaly has lied. There is no proof of it and for many of the papers to slanderously start claiming so is a little premature, bearing in mind there is a law firm doing a full investigation, that I hope will get to the bottom of this once and for all so that us loyal supporters can get some clarity one way or the other. However, I cannot take the stance that many of her supporters are taking that is: it doesn't matter whether she lied or not, she has made such a huge difference, it is the cause that is relevant. In my opinion, that's neither here nor there. Of course it is about the cause, the problem I see is, it always should have been. It is about the cause, not Somaly Mam, not The Somaly Mam Foundation, but sex trafficking, human trafficking, slavery.
Can these potential lies or truth stretching be justified because of the greater impact she has had? In my humble opinion, not at all. That does not justify anything. Anyone who thinks that is more or less saying it's not how you got there, it's what you achieve. I might be thinking this because I'm a teacher and a new mother, but who wants to teach that to their children? It's also a little insulting in my opinion to suggest that had Somaly not had a dramatic story published into a book she could not have achieved what she had done? There are many women, like Somaly, with similar backgrounds and without who are fighting and making huge waves in the battle against sex trafficking, Rachel Lloyd, Sunitha Krishnan, Anuradha Koirala, to name a few of the more well known advocates, but then there are I'm sure plenty of others working tirelessly day in day out fighting or preventing the cause in their communities who may not get a hashtag with their name attached and their own foundation, but who are affecting hundreds of thousands of lives as well. If it is really about the cause, let's support and raise awareness of these other women and other foundations.
Unfortunately, the introduction of a lie, however big or small, belittles anything that has been done and casts doubt on Everything that has been said. It leads people to think, well, if she lied about this, who is to say she didn't lie about that. And that is only talking about within the foundation. But what about 'the cause?' A big concern is that these allegations could make a laughing stock of the whole cause that is sex trafficking. Does this not put at risk those many girls who really have suffered and have horrific stories to tell. How can people ever start to trust they are real if someone so well known was possibly lying to us all this time.
If the allegations turn out to be true then I see them realistically and most like just as very naïve and misguided choices at the time, when Somaly was much younger, more easily influenced, and also unaware of the greater implications which might lie ahead. These then caught more momentum than expected as they were told and retold, and then when the lie was heard by too many people, it was impossible to turn back. I don't think that makes her a bad person, but it makes what she did extremely bad, especially because of the way the sex trafficking, human trafficking, or any other cause could now be affected.
I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed by the lukewarm, if that, response from Nicholas Kristof in regards to the whole fiasco. He and I shared the same hero, and I guess I was hoping that he, as an accredited, well informed, well researched, well respected journalist would provide me with some educated view on the situation or something I hadn't already heard. Kristof sang Somaly Mam's praises, featured her in his documentary Half the Sky, even tweeted live as they raided a brothel; he brought attention to Somana's case, and in both cases probably brought a lot of attention to the cause and the Somaly Mam Foundation. Now that the truth is uncertain, it brings doubt to the credibility of his story, which as a renowned journalist, I'd say, is somewhat, well, embarrassing, to say the least, and detrimental to his credibility as a journalist and his career at the worst. I am glad to say the editor of the New York Times shares my opinion and I hope to see something read-worthy on the topic before long.
Supporters of Somaly Mam claim she doesn't deserve all this media attention, why don't the papers pick on someone else? In response to that I say; Somaly's celebrity status and lifestyle has been visibly sky rocketing over the last few years. Her travelling and work schedule has been insane. When I was working at AFESIP for 3 months, I saw her all of maybe 3 times, she was busy flying around the world- and don't ask me who pays for it, but a little bird told me she doesn't fly economy because flying hurts her ears. Each time I saw her, she was thinner and thinner, visibly exhausted and stressed, but I remember noting the beautiful and expensive clothing she was wearing, and as an unpaid volunteer I was certainly envious to say the least. But every time she came back from a trip, be it Australia, Korea, New York, or all three in a month, she would take the time to talk to me and lament how exhausted she was, and how she missed her girls in the shelters, and her son and daughters. Before working at AFESIP she would Facebook message me directly and made time to meet me when she traveled to Singapore. Perhaps she thought I had money or was more influential than I turned out to be. I didn't suck up to her while I was there, or hang on every word she said as many people did do there, and maybe it's because of that, or because I'm not a celebrity or high end donor, I haven't heard two words from her since and she's ignored any messages I've sent.
Many a photo has appeared on her Facebook page in glamorous situations: red carpets and events, but also a lot of partying, having fun and jetting around. I'm not saying she can't have fun, but most people know if you have a public online image, you should manage it carefully or people will get the wrong (or maybe right) idea and not everyone will be happy about it. One particular post, which finally led me to block her posts from my newsfeed because, to be honest with you, they made me feel uncomfortable; was her on a private jet, donated by a generous donor, who must have felt better about himself after hosting this hero, with her status, 'I miss my girls in Cambodia', or something along those lines. I believe that this statement was true, I'm sure she did miss them, but why didn't she not politely refuse saying that's really not necessary, or did she have no choice but to accept the donated flight? I have to question how a flight on my private jet would help 'the cause' or benefit anyone other than the person riding on the jet itself. Her birthday party was always held somewhere celeb filled and glamourous in New York. Why not at the shelters with her girls, or at home with her family? The foundation justified that her worldwide travel was necessary for the cause, but in my opinion, one or two appearances a month less would not have hurt the cause (but perhaps the foundation), then she could have spent time with the girls which I do believe is really where she'd rather be, and spend time with her young son, who I knew barely got to see her and missed her a lot.
What I'd like to know is, if she really wanted that, why did she not put her foot down? Did she have someone making the decisions for her? Did she have no choice? Or did she really, actually prefer the glamorous jet set lifestyle but felt the need to defend it by saying she'd rather be with her girls? Talk of being free and empowering women; it seemed she herself was not really free, or was this a sacrifice of her own personal choices for the greater good of the cause? Okay, I'll ride on the jet, even though I'd rather be at the shelter, because I know it will lead to a huge donation to the foundation.
Allegedly, Somaly went from earning nothing in 2008, to earning in excess of $100,000 a year in 2011. For $100,000 a year (which, correct me if I'm wrong, comes from donor money??) I too could sacrifice a few personal preferences for the greater good. I believe any director of any non profit organization deserves a decent, competitive salary that can provide them a good quality of life to ensure they can do their job well, which in turn often leads to much more monetary support, but in a country where garment workers are fighting and some have lost their lives in a bid to earn a meager US$160 a month as opposed to the $80 they earn now, and most of the girls coming out of her shelters are at that level of the food chain, I cannot see how you could sleep at night taking home that amount of money.
The fact is, she has brought on the media attention herself, or at least by her foundation. She has not shied away from the camera when it has meant she has been able to hob knob with stars such as Susan Sarandon, Hilary Clinton and a trail of other celebrities who have probably read her book and genuinely see the hero in her, as we all did, but I'm sure they are also not unaware that being chummy-chummy with a sex slave survivor will certainly not hurt their celebrity status either. How could you not get caught up in the lifestyle and the attention? Somaly herself has become a celebrity, whether it was her doing or not, and celebs take the rough media attention with the smooth, good press and bad press. Had she wanted to shy away from the media or slowed down the glamorous lifestyle, she could have done so, way before now. Truth or lies, resigning from your own foundation days after such allegations are publicly made against you, is going to do you no PR favours. I have no regard for the Somaly Mam Foundation, but I do have a lot of regard for everyone who thought of Somaly as their hero, who is now confused and disappointed; for the girls in the shelters who she has helped and depend on her and for the Voices for Change girls, who although 'independent', will be lost without their 'mom'. Somaly owes us an explanation and an apology. It shouldn't be written by someone else, edited for grammar mistakes and vetted to make sure it is politically correct and can't do her any more damage, it should be, as her many speeches around the world have been, unscripted, from the heart, with her bad English and all. Somaly Mam, as a hero to thousands, you owe us this.