Stories Are Not for Sale

My life's work stands on this tenet: humankind's greatest innovation is the power of story. We are the product of our stories, and our greatest tool, our most powerful force for change, is the strength to tell them. I founded LitWorld, a global non-profit organization, to make sure children everywhere know their power in telling their own true stories and can use them to author lives of independence, hope and joy.

Stories, and the right to choose how they are told, belong to the individual. I can't stay silent when I hear that stories, the most precious commodity we have, are being manipulated and taken without permission from their owners by those who claim to be speaking as human rights activists.

These are the allegations facing Somaly Mam, founder of the Somaly Mam Foundation, who has been celebrated for years for her anti-trafficking efforts in Cambodia. Mam has fought trafficking all her life, claiming her battle began when she escaped a brothel as a young woman. But journalists from the Cambodia Daily, Newsweek, and other publications have begun to uncover lies in her personal account. Worse yet are the accusations that she has manufactured the stories of girls she has freed from modern-day slavery.

Sadly Mam is not the first fallen hero in the non-profit world. She is preceded by other exaggerated stories of humanitarianism, the most well-known being Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson's untrue accounts of building schools in Central Asia. Both were media darlings, both were leaders of multi-million dollar foundations.

Mam and Mortenson's alleged fabrications are harmful to advocacy around the world and call into question the meaning of powerful humanitarian work. To work "for a good cause," to "affect change," to "fight the good fight" -- all of these buzz words have become blanket terms that those removed from the issues forget to challenge. If it's a good cause, we stop questioning how it is achieved.

A former champion of Mam's work has argued that despite manipulating her own story as well as those of the girls she aimed to protect, at least her lie "helped" people and raised awareness. I fundamentally disagree. There is no argument that trafficking women and girls and gender-based violence and oppression are not issues of urgent and extreme concern -- but we can only act on this concern if we have our story straight.

The problem with dismissing authenticity and integrity in favor of the "benefit" of celebrity endorsements, an all-star cast of board members and media accolades is that rarely are the voices of the children, girls and community members themselves brought into the conversation. Change and development work must always start from a place of inquiry. Of gathering stories from people who know their community best and listening to their needs, hopes and their visions and ideas for change.

What's worse than not listening to the stories of community members? Tossing them aside and coaching girls to tell false narratives. Saying to them, "Your own story would not be newsworthy, so we've written a new one."

Bending the truth and fictionalizing the reality of the horrors of human exploitation is a form of exploitation in itself; the women and children whose stories are distorted become slaves of modern-day media. Twisting a child's story to captivate readers and listeners, in attempt to provoke compassion and draw donations undermines the furthering of the rights we claim to fight for. We do not need shock and awe to decide that the injustices around the world deserve attention. Sensationalist reports negate the empowerment we are fighting for.

What precedent are we are setting for our girls whose stories have not been told? Or who are hoping their stories will be truly heard? Around the world hundreds of millions of children's lives, and girls' lives especially, are disrupted by violence, war and the consequences of extreme poverty. What they should never feel displaced from are their own stories. The message we all need to rally behind is of the unadulterated value of each individual's story -- from the brutal wounds to the struggle for justice to the rays of hope, and everything in between.

To be champions of what is right, we must act in the right. Strength and change start with truth. And the authentic stories of children in the world do not need fabrication. From true stories of hardship and heartbreak, every child has the right to tell a new story of her own of resilience, hope and joy.