Saturday, 31 May 2014

A daily dose of hate - Somaly Mam - sex, lies and videotape

First I want to give credit for the title of this post - "A daily dose of hate" is a Facebook page and a blog I follow, which I think are maintained by my distant acquaintance Magdalina Genova - a brilliant blogger (in Bulgarian) and sort of a political and social activist for all things good and fair. Magdalina and I are born on the same date - 30 March - and while I know personally about four more people born on this date, Magdalina's blog sometimes sounds like my thoughts - always annoyed/angry at and ranting about some injustice in the world or another. If you can understand Bulgarian and care about politics and justice - I recommend it. 

So today I want to be angry about a disgusting story of sex, lies and videotape - the one of Somaly Mam and her foundation. This post may at times repeat or be inspired by other articles on the topic by Maggie McNeill, Melissa Gira Grant in the New York Times, and

The Somaly Mam Foundation is officially an organisation working against human trafficking in Cambodia, bearing the name of Somaly Mam - an anti-trafficking activist. I heard about it a few years ago, thinking first that it was an organisation of Somalian mothers or something. Somaly's star was shining bright in the anti-trafficking sky - receiving awards, attending UN and US Congress hearings, being proclaimed woman of the year and one of the 100 most influential persons, appearing at gala's with actors, musicians, statesmen... It took me, though, one look at the foundation's website to realise that the star was shining brightly in ALARMING RED - it was all about 'those poor girls', 'millions of children', 'trapped in sexual slavery', and accompanied by photos of bruised, abused and chained girls. The usual moral panic that always makes me feel sceptic about an organisation but is so attractive to celebrities, media, authorities and their dollars. To mention some of the recognition Mam received: CNN Hero Award 2006, Glamour magazine Woman of the Year 2006, US State Department "Heroes of the Anti-Trafficking" Award, Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential Persons in 2009 with a speech by Angelina Jolie. And, of course, 2.8 million dollars of donations to her foundation only in 2012. 

But all this glamour and success tumbled down this week when Newsweek published a story revealing the lies on which Somaly's work was based. They were actually first revealed already two years ago by Cambodia Daily but after the piece in Newsweek, Somaly finally resigned from her own foundation. So Somaly's success was due not only to the moral panic she was generating and maintaining but mostly to the lies she concocted. It began apparently in 1998 when a French TV aired a video about Somaly's organisation where a 14-year-old girl told her story of being kidnapped, raped, sold, trafficked and what not. Two years ago she finally admitted that none of this was true but she was reading from a script that Somaly had given her. Somaly also had a couple of personal horror stories - that she was herself an orphan, kidnapped, raped, abused, trafficked from age of around 10 (depending on who she was talking to, apparently the age was changing too). People in her village, though, admitted that she had parents, went to school and was a happy child - no selling, raping or orphaning.. Somaly also claimed that her own daughter was kidnapped, raped and had her eye gouged out by pimps and traffickers as a retaliation for her mother's work. Somaly's husband later clarified that their daughter's eye was actually removed by surgeons because of a medical condition and that she had run away with her boyfriend and was not kidnapped by anyone. And so on... 

Somaly's supporters and her foundation are now trying to convince us that it was all worth it, because, you see, they "rescued", "saved", "empowered", "sheltered" thousands upon thousands of women and girls from trafficking, slavery, kidnappings and rapes. But this begs the old question - when and to what extent does the end justify the means? Should you kill a killer? Is dictatorship justified if it, let's say, improves the economy? Should an NGO tell a few "white lies" if this will help it do good work? I am outraged that there are so many good anti-trafficking NGOs that adhere to strict ethical principles and, as a result, hardly receive any media, let alone celebrity attention, and struggle for money and recognition but do their job honestly. NGOs which always say that we don't know how much trafficking there is in the world and we should be careful when interpreting figures; that trafficking happens in the unregulated labour sectors, such as the sex industry but also agriculture, construction and domestic work; that sex workers should be consulted on anti-trafficking policies; that "sex trafficking" is wrong terminology and "sex slaves" even more so. And so on. On the other hand, organisations like the Somaly Mam Foundation fabricate stories to create moral panics and to receive millions of dollars in donations without ever having to write "logical frameworks", "sustainability of the action" and justify the "value for money" budgets and then keep every single receipt to account for the meagre amounts they received. How low can you stoop to attract more money and to further your agenda? 

Finally, not only was Somaly's work based on lies but it was damaging to sex workers in Cambodia. In a country torn by conflict, a lot of women turned to sex work as their only means of making a living. However, Somaly's rhetoric led to their arrests and prosecutions or, at the very least, their "rescue" from brothels. There are two famous stories, involving the Somaly Mam Foundation and Pulitzer-Prize winner and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof - in one he "purchased" a victim of trafficking from her pimp (unclear to me now if she was such or a voluntary sex worker) for 200 USD or whatever and in another - he live tweeted a brothel raid in Phnom Pen. To anyone with a sound moral judgement, this is the opposite of empowerment and assistance - it's abuse and re-victimisation! And what happened to the "rescued victims" - they were placed by Somaly's Foundation to work in garment factories in Cambodia for two-thirds the living wage. I have to wonder, who is the slave and who needs to be rescued - the sex worker who decides when and how to work and probably makes reasonable money or the garment factory worker who can't leave and has to toil long hours for a measly wage? It may sound slightly like a "conspiracy theory" but claims that Nike funds the foundation of Nick Kristof, which "rescues" women from the sex industry only to place them in the garment industry: "Most women in Cambodia live under conditions of poverty and desperation, and the garment industry’s insistent refusal to meet living-wage standards ensures this will continue for some time. Still, garment workers know an entire international trade system relies on their willing participation... The big brands know it too, which is why the Nike Foundation funds Half the Sky — as do other multinationals that both enforce, and rely on, women’s desperate poverty around the world."

No comments:

Post a Comment