In its May 30 issue, Newsweek ran a story about Somaly Mam, a woman from Cambodia who has been at the forefront of the very public and high-profile fight against child trafficking in her country.
Mam is head of the AFESIP—Agir Pour Les Femmes en Situation Précaire, or “Helping Women in Danger” —and the Somaly Mam Foundation. Both organizations rescue young girls from traffickers and give them hope for an empowered future.
Mam’s fight is made all the more compelling by her background. In her autobiography entitled The Road of Lost Innocence published in 2005, Mam said she was enslaved and physically abused by an older man she called “Grandfather”. And then she was sold as a virgin to a Chinese merchant. At age 14, she was made to marry a violent soldier. Later, she was sold to a brothel in Phnom Penh. Here she underwent severe torture...until she summoned the courage to escape. She then spent the succeeding years helping girls avoid the fate that befell her.
She had come a long way. In 2007, CNN named her Hero of the Year. She became part of Time’s 100. She was a speaker at Fortune’s most powerful women, and also one of Nesweek/ Daily Beast’s Women Who Shake The World. Many famous people around the world—political figures like Hillary Clinton and Spain’s Queen Sofia, journalists like Nicholas Kristof, and movie stars like Susan Sarandon—supported her cause and traveled to Cambodia to help raise awareness, and funds, for her advocacy.
But Newsweek’s cover story from a week ago entitled “Sex, Slavery and a Slippery Truth” was far from flattering. Apparently, the news magazine discovered that most of Mam’s claims about her own life story were false. It was able to track people from Mam’s extended family and village who said there was no “Grandfather” at all in her life. There was also a friend who said that the two of them had gone to training as teachers together.
There were also some who claim that her demeanor in running her organizations runs counter to the image of self-effacing survivor that she wants to portray. She runs her groups like a tyrant and often makes the girls under her care do personal errands for her. Worse, some of the girls were made to act out the part of victim to encourage donors to contribute even though they never really underwent the experiences they said they did.
It’s one thing to embellish one’s past and make an ordinary life story the stuff of books. It is quite another to capitalize on these “sob” stories for fame and riches.
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A similar thing happened to Greg Mortenson, who published “Three Cups of Tea” which talked about his attempt to climb the second-highest mountain, K2, and his eventual decision to create schools for poor children in faraway villages in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The book stayed 50 weeks in the New York Times’ bestseller list.
Because of his work, Mortenson was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 and 2010.
His story got donors so inspired that they contributed more than $70 million to the charity he founded, the Central Asia Institute.
But in 2011, it was revealed that CAI “was spending more money advertising Mortenson’s books and flying him around the country in private jets than building schools or educating students...” Many of the episodes described in the book, like him being nursed back to health by Pakistani villagers, or being abducted by the Taliban, all stemmed merely from Mortenson’s imagination.
Much later, guesting on a tv show, Mortenson said: “I always have operated from my heart. I’m not a really head person. And I really didn’t factor in the very important things of accountability, transparency...”
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Finally, who can forget Lance Armstrong, the American cyclist who won the Tour de France not once but seven times, and who was himself a survivor of cancer?
Armstrong capitalized on his popularity and his inspiring against-all-odds story to established a foundation helping children with cancer. Alas, all these crumbled when it was exposed that he used performance enhancing drugs during his competition and bullied his teammates to do so, themselves.
We hear about these kinds of stories and realize that they become more galling for their hypocrisy and duplicity.
These are not too different from the do-gooding foundations and NGOs set up here supposedly to help farmers, fishermen, indigenous communities and other underprivileged groups, not for the purpose of actually helping these people but to act as receiver of funds supposedly given by government officials.
It appears that there is no clear end in sight for the PDAF scam. Mam, Mortenson and Armstrong have had their moments (of shame) in the spotlight and have lost, or started losing, credibility—never mind the fact that they could have actually helped real people.
Here at home, we can only watch the scandal drag on and morph into a political game. We will always wonder whether those accused are the only ones who should be charged, and who among those proclaiming to be of service to others are actually wearing a double face.