The beautiful lies that broke my heart
I read Somaly Mam’s book cover to cover in a bookstore, holding myself utterly still so I wouldn’t start crying, drowning in the images of violence and suffering she wrote about.
It was that cover picture, a Cambodian woman who had been through hell and survived. That gave me hope when I was the desperately confused new mother to children from Cambodia who had been bought and sold by traffickers, hurt in ways that I could barely comprehend, and deep in grief over all they had lost before coming to these new strangers in Singapore.
We watched and read Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple, and something in that story unlocked the first secrets. I told them with stumbling simple Khmer about how I had been hit as a little girl over and over, and promised I would never hit them. Stories, both mine and those we found from other survivors and in novels, helped my children find a way out of their painful pasts.
Stories mattered deeply.
When the Newsweek report broke, I wasn’t surprised. There had been rumours, and I had met donors and journalists who wanted a wonderful saviour story and weren’t interested in the reality of trafficking in Cambodia.
I’m not even angry now, only terribly sad. The pressure to package the right story is immense when you have to raise funds. I have nightmares about running out of funds, about how to decide which program to close – the new kindergarten class or the medical clinic?
If a restaurant closes, a few staff lose their jobs and people have to eat somewhere else. If Riverkids closes, hundreds of children go hungry, drop out of school and have nowhere safe to find shelter or get help. And there is no-one else stepping in.
Compared to that, why not put together a great heartbreaking story? Piece it together from the real stories, where the kids are too traumatised to talk, and get someone photogenic and poised with a happy ever after ending. That’s kinder than what I’ve seen, where a child is forced to talk over and over about their pain to raise funds, selling a little of their soul each time.
But it’s a lie. A beautiful lie.
And in the end, beautiful lies cover up uglier truths. The truth about trafficking in Cambodia is ugly.
Most of the people buying sex are Cambodian, but sex-tourists bring in the money. Boys are sexually assaulted almost as often as girls but they have far fewer people helping them. Parents sell their children because of gambling debts and medical debts. Being sold as a domestic slave can be worse than working in a sex bar.
Trafficking and abuse in Cambodia has become an image of a young girl locked in a cage in a secret brothel, waiting for a hero to burst through the doors and rescue her. Or at least donate to do that.
The truth about trafficking is a teenage girl being inspected by a doctor for her virginity because she’s agreed to sleep with a rich businessman for three nights to pay off her family’s crushing hospital bills. It’s the newborn baby being sold for adoption to a family so there’s money to feed the other children. It’s the boy who falls asleep in class because he’s been collecting recyclable trash before dawn to pay the ‘fees’ the teacher demands. It’s the battered wife who looks away when her new husband gets drunk and calls her daughter to come closer.
There are no easy solutions. There’s no hero who can stage a raid and swooping in to save girls from having their eyes gouged out by brutal pimps, set them up as hairdressers and inspiring role models and smile for the cameras.
There are instead thousands of people in Cambodia working together to train teachers, get clean water, nurse sick babies, create better jobs, all the steps that weave together to build families and communities closer and healthier. People who are ignored because they don’t have a beautiful lie.
The beautiful lies grab all the loving compassion and generous support that good people are moved to give to children in Cambodia and send it to the least effective ways to help them.
That’s what makes me really angry. That so much could have been done, and so little was. That children who really needed help got forgotten because they weren’t the right kind of trafficked and abused.
Stories saved my family and me. Keeping them true will save so many more children.
- Dale Edmonds
P.S. A few years ago, we produced a book called Eight Stories about what we do at Riverkids. With the permission of eight families, we included their true stories about trafficking in Cambodia. We changed people’s names to protect their privacy but we did not “improve” stories to make them more effective. The printed book is US$45 but if you are interested in reading about what we do, just hit reply and I’ll send you the PDF, and you can share it too.
Riverkids works with children and families in danger of abuse and trafficking in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
We identify children at high risk because of extreme poverty, drug abuse, alcoholism, gambling, child abuse or other children or family involved in trafficking. Then, we talk with the families to work out what help they need and what will keep their children safe.
Sometimes, it’s as simple as getting the children enrolled in school. Other times, we need to provide emergency shelter for abused children and urgent medical care to prevent a greater crisis. For our families, selling their children is a desperate solution to complicated long-term problems that can’t be quickly solved, but instead need patience and compassion to find practical solutions like vocational training and family counselling.
Our community centers are within walking distance from the crowded and dangerous slums our families live in. That makes it easy for the families to ask for help during an emergency, and makes our centers part of the local community. We hire staff from the local slums where possible too.