As you may have heard, it has come to light, following reporting by Simon Marks for the Cambodia Daily and Newsweek, that Somaly Mam — founder of AFESIP (Agir pour les Femmes en Situation Precaire, or “Acting for Women in Distressing Situations”), a Cambodian NGO dedicated to “rescuing, housing and rehabilitating women and children in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam who have been sexually exploited,” and the namesake of the Somaly Mam Foundation, a U.S. nonprofit “committed to ending modern slavery and empowering its survivors as part of the solution” — seems to have fabricated the story of her early life. As a result of the reports and maelstrom of controversy, Mam has resigned from her leadership role in the Somaly Mam Foundation. The revelations and response are, of course, not small things, and very upsetting considering that much of the inspiration factor around Mam and her work came from that human-trafficking-victim-turned-NGO-leader narrative.
In the wake of Mam’s resignation there have been many good pieces about what the scandal means for us in the West, work against modern slavery broadly, journalism, nonprofits, and so on. In particular, I recommend taking a look at these pieces from Salon, The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, Thanh Nien News, and The Nation (though I wouldn’t necessarily agree with everything in them). The New York Times has also done its best to get in front of this, seeing as Mam’s profile was significantly boosted by their columnist Nick Kristof, who has written about her many times in his columns, and told her story in both the book and the film Half the Sky: they have so far offered this op-ed, as well as these blog posts by Public Editor Margaret Sullivan about Kristof’s responses to the news (at this point, he has offered two blog posts about it all, but no column space).
As regular readers might remember, I interviewed Somaly Mam for the Fall 2013 issue of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. Like so many other writers, had I known what we know now, I would not have pursued the interview. In addition, while I didn’t necessarily feel like it was something I needed to do — I was trusting that the many news agencies and real journalists and publishers who had come before me had done their jobs — I do regret not doing my due diligence to verify Mam’s story. (Full disclosure: Nick Kristof helped me propose to my wife, and the Half the Sky Movement and Somaly Mam Foundation helped me to secure the interview with Mam.)
I’m very sorry to Tricycle, and to readers. You deserve better from me, and you’ve got my commitment to do better in the future. Though I often work critically, I’m a hopeful guy by nature and, like a lot of other people, I really wanted to believe these hopeful stories. For me, it has been disappointing and dispiriting to see all this unfold, and embarrassing as well, considering my own small part in conveying these stories. But I think this experience will result in much better work from me going forward. I hope you’ll hang in with me…