There is no heavier sound than the fall of a giant. Its echoes reach the ears of every person they’ve influenced, calling everything into question. Look at Somaly Mam, the famous advocate against human trafficking. Her personal narrative of surviving sexual slavery in Cambodia did the heavy-lifting for the brand of the Somaly Mam Foundation, the rescue organization she led. It turns out, her story isn’t completely true. The discrepancies are large enough that she stepped down and has lost significant credibility.
So far, I’ve only found a handful of stories about her resignation. Many people seem to believe that her work to combat human trafficking overrides any “embellishments” or “exaggerations.” I understand that point of view. But it’s dangerous. It casts a net of doubt over everyone addressing this terrible crime.
The past few years since I studied human trafficking in graduate school, awareness has exploded. Organizations have sprouted, documentaries screened and improvements to legislation have been painstakingly crafted. After decades of expertise at the Federal level, the understanding of human trafficking has trickled down to local police departments across the U.S. There’s still much work to do. And despite the admirable work of the Somaly Mam Foundation, now there are more seeds of doubt to take root in the dialogue.
The Consequences: Embellishing Survival Stories Makes Truth-Tellers Look Like They’re Crying Wolf
When high-profile stories turn out to be false, whether through carelessness or outright dishonesty, it sends ammunition for all the deniers. Many people and organizations profit off human trafficking. The widespread attention isn’t good for business, so they question the statistics. Others simply engage in victim-blaming out of misogyny, ignorance and spite. Somaly Mam’s resignation will come to them like a present, wrapped in a pretty bow. Inside is a megaphone for their message: human trafficking isn’t real, it doesn’t matter and those people aren’t really victims.
I’ve come to the unfortunate conclusion that the biggest boost to human trafficking rings is the irresponsible advocate. The person who plays fast and loose with the numbers, who thinks that telling a story trumps the truth. This crime happens right under the nose of every society. It thrives in shadows and nuance, allowing people to choose whether or not to believe it. I’m not crazy about human trafficking statistics because we never know how accurate they are.
At the same time, they offer compelling insight. Did you know the average age of being forced into prostitution in the U.S. is 13? See, that’s not something we know for a hard fact, but there are empirical studies to support this. And I bet I have your attention now.
An Uncomfortable Truth: Exploitive Communications Work
More disturbing than the questions raised about Somaly’s past are the allegations that she fabricated stories of children and trumpeted them. A non-profit needs stories. But not at the expense of the truth, and not by making a crime against a child a flagship piece of branding. Somaly chose to share her own story and put her name on a global issue. To choose that for someone else is different and to write fiction for it makes me wonder: is it better to exploit a child for a good cause than flat-out greed?
Executive Directors who serve vulnerable populations deal with this issue all the time. A documentary film maker wants to film their clients. Or the marketing team needs to tell a relatable story, but the case workers care about privacy. It’s tough. Executive Directors often see this as an issue of protecting their clients and looking after their emotional and physical safety.
UNICEF has very clear guidelines on responsible communications about an emotionally charged problem: child soldiers (also a form of human trafficking). Their policies put the needs of the victim first. And it’s led to better, more creative messaging. Check out this campaign, turning soldiers back into children. Take a look at the photos on UNICEF’s page. They’re better than straight-on typical portraits. Sometimes having a difficult rule to follow helps creative professionals see things from a new angle and stir even more emotion.
The Truth is Bad Enough
If the allegations are true, it looks like you can unring a bell. She stands accused of making up a story about rescuing a young girl after a brothel owner gouged out the girl’s eye. This story stuck with me when I read it in Half the Sky and when the co-author, Sheryl WuDunn, told it in person at Webster University. If this story is untrue, it has made me question my favorite resource about the rights of women and girls. I suggested it as recently as my previous post.
When Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea, came under similar criticisms, Nicholas Kristof, the other author of Half the Sky, defended him. The Pentagon has credited this book in shaping the policy in Afghanistan. The wisdom behind both Mortenson’s book and the horrors of human trafficking remain in tact despite these allegations. But the truth matters. I don’t know if these allegations are true, but her resignation makes it seem likely.
I wonder if Nicholas Kristof will make a statement that does more than say “Look at all the good work they’ve done.” How he responds will affect if I continue to recommend his book. If he doesn’t care that one story could be false, what about the rest? While I agree the Somaly Mam Foundation has done good work and should continue, I believe the truth matters. Because the truth is bad enough.