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Somaly Mam

June 2, 2014

It was reported last week that Somaly Mam, the anti-sex trafficking activist, had resigned from the foundation that she created and that bears her name because of allegations that she had exaggerated her own story and the stories of others, working with her. Apparently she had not been sold into slavery at age 9, nor forced to marry a soldier at age 14.  An investigation is proceeding on this matter.

Somaly Mam had become a hero in the eyes of many because of her (now questionable) story and because of her work against sex-trafficking in Cambodia and Laos. Secretary of State John Kerry called her “a hero every single day.” She was a CNN hero in 2006 and one of the Time Magazine 2009 “Heroes and Icons.” Nicholas Kristof, of the New York Times featured her more than once.

People’s reactions to the story was one of betrayal and rightly so. We still expect to be told the truth!

However, no one to my knowledge expressed relief that Somaly had not been forced into slavery at 9 years of age, nor forced to marry a soldier at age 14.  Because it does happen all the time!

According to Equality Now, the International Labor Organization estimates that there are more than 20 million adults and children that are bought and sold worldwide each year into commercial sexual servitude and forced labor.

A question we might ask is whether it is OK to lie to save a life? Most people will agree that it is.

A second question we might ask ourselves is whether it is OK to lie to reveal the truth? I think this is what happened here. Creating a composite character of a victim is a lie but very often does communicate a greater reality.

Many believe that exaggerating stories is common among activists and NGOs. It is done in order to increase donations. It is regrettable and should not be necessary because the truth is bleak enough without exaggeration. Yet, we the public at large, seem to need heroes and very dramatic stories to be moved and to donate. We, the public, are the reason for those exaggerations.

What remains is that much good is done worldwide by NGOs and not-for-profit organizations and that is true for the Somaly Mam Foundation as well.

Gina Reiss-Wilchins its Executive Director, posted a message on the foundation’s website on May 28, 2014 in which she said:

“Despite our heartfelt disappointment, the work of the Foundation and our grant partners must and will carry on. We have touched the lives of over 100,000 women and girls. We have 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.”

We all hope the work continues.

As Khalil Gibran once said:

“Exaggeration is truth that has lost its temper.”

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