When we first heard about Somaly Mam’s resignation from the Somaly Mam Foundation on May 28 after a Newsweek spread claiming her personal history of 10 years of sex trafficking to be fabricated, we instantly looked for the “good” in the story and thanked her for the years of work she has done highlighting the issue of sex trafficking around the world. We strived for grace even though the same Newsweek article uncovered two women who spoke on behalf of the Foundation had since recanted their entire story of trafficking and torture, attributing their roles as having been encouraged by Mam in order to attract attention and funding. However, in our rush not to judge, it may have appeared that we were giving her a pass that the ends justify the means. Unfortunately, in the end, she may have done at least equally as much harm as good.
In reaction to this story, Tina Frundt, domestic sex trafficking survivor and founder of Courtney’s House wrote:
“This does hurt real survivors it takes away from what we really went through. It took many of us many years to get out and now many of us dedicate our entire life to help those that are being victimized. Why on earth would someone want to lie and have others lie about the pain we had to endure?? This does hurt real survivors like me. Honestly you don't have to lie to help”
By allowing Mam to not answer for her actions actually minimizes the pain, the physical and emotional scars, and the traumatic memories that real survivors have to face every day. It takes a lifetime of resilience to not only overcome all those scars, but also to move on from them, choose a life that is truly healing by pursuing academic and professional goals that redefine a person beyond “survivor.” And for those who choose to share their story in order that one less person becomes exploited or one more person learns how their actions contribute to exploitation, takes a strength of facing fears most of us will never know. Most of us do not want to relive whatever trauma we have endured be it a death of a loved one, growing up in poverty, or an assault on the street.
Most of us are not asked to recount the details of our trauma to raise awareness or funds or change legislation. We are not defined by our trauma. Yet the mindset that Mam held on to that led her to justify the means of creating and promoting elaborate stories of survival is exactly what educators, donors and legislators are looking for.
Frequently we answer requests to speak with a caveat that, if we can also bring a survivor to share her story, that would be great. Or, perhaps equally as frequently, we are contacted for our connections to survivors that someone can interview instead of Traffick Free. Though we do our best to accommodate because we know the desire comes from a well-intentioned place, we also educate by reminding people that, sometimes, asking someone to relive their story and labeling them a “survivor” from the start limits who that person is, and risks re-traumatizing them. So we never promise being able to connect with a survivor, but we promise that the stories we do tell are no less accurate than if you heard it directly from them.
So while it is questionable that the ends justify the means, for years, volunteers have come to Traffick Free having first learned about sex trafficking from Somaly Mam, from following her on social media and attending fundraising events to hear her speak. These volunteers come inspired, educated and passionate about wanting to help end human trafficking worldwide. We are thankful for that.
by Laura Ng, Executive Director