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Cari Mitchell spokesperson for the ECP (English Collective of Prostitutes) has given an interview for the Tribune in which she has raised some important issues. The article is at :
or linked from title above.
Sex workers have rights, says Cari Mitchell, they are vulnerable, and they must not be pushed into the shadows
by Cari Mitchell
Saturday, June 19th, 2010
The horrific murders of three women in Bradford hit the headlines recently, but at least three other women have met a violent death in the city in recent years: the latest, tragic examples of how current policies make sex workers vulnerable to attack.
Police and vigilante action in the 1990s forced sex workers from Bradford’s established red light area into the bleak industrial landscape we saw on our television screens. Having “cleaned up” one area, the police washed their hands of the other. One local woman, who had been assaulted four times, said: “I didn’t bother to report the attacks because I knew nothing would be done.”
The same happened in Ipswich; the murders of five women were preceded by a crackdown in 2004 which drove women into isolated areas. It is a similar story in Birmingham, and in most towns and cities around the country: women are put in harm’s way by “clean-ups”. When clients were also targeted the situation worsened – in Scotland, attacks doubled after kerb-crawling was criminalised.
David Cameron’s response to this latest loss of lives is contradictory. While proposing a further crackdown on kerb-crawlers, he agreed that decriminalisation should be “looked at” again. This is not surprising, since both the Liberal Democrats and organisations such as Women Against Rape and the Royal College of Nursing favour decriminalisation on safety grounds.
New Zealand, which decriminalised prostitution in 2003, is the first place the government should look at. New Zealand has repealed laws prohibiting street work and allows up to four people to work together from premises without a licence; bigger establishments are licensed. Five years on, a comprehensive review was encouraging: no increase in prostitution, improved working conditions and sex workers more able to report violence and leave if they want to, no longer trapped by criminal records denying them access to other jobs.
A similar law in Britain would improve safety. Sex workers would not have to work in isolated areas, deterred from reporting violence for fear of arrest. And they would be able to work together more safely from premises. At present this is illegal: two or more sex workers constitute a brothel.
The right to safety was recently upheld in court. Luton mother Claire Finch was prosecuted for brothel keeping because she worked with friends. But neighbours and others gave evidence that no force or coercion was used, and that working alone was more dangerous than working with others. The jury agreed, and found her not guilty.
If this case signifies the beginning of a reverse in the present trend, lives will be saved. At the moment, as most sex workers don’t report violence for fear of arrest, the perpetrators of that violence remain a danger not only to sex workers but to the public at large. Even when violence is reported, justice is not forthcoming. The conviction rate for reported rape is a shameful 6 per cent; and the conviction rate for murder is three times lower when the victims are sex workers.
Arrests, ASBOs, raids, prosecutions and imprisonment of sex workers have soared in the past five years, particularly since the 2009 Policing and Crime Act increased the criminalisation of prostitution. Proceeds of crime legislation has also fuelled prosecutions, as police keep 25 per cent of money and assets seized.
Figures showing that 95 per cent of street workers are on drugs are used to justify criminalisation. But why is criminalisation needed for women to get the help they are entitled to? What about poverty? Government research acknowledged poverty as the root cause of prostitution. Yet the repressive PCA which the previous Government claimed would help “rehabilitate” sex workers, was introduced at the same time as the Welfare Reform Act abolished income support – the main benefit single mothers had been able to rely on.
A single woman on benefits is expected to live on £62 a week; a single mother with two children on £193.85. Inexplicably, mothers under 18 get £12.60 a week less. Do they eat less or need less heating? Women seeking asylum have had their benefits cut to £35 a week. No wonder some turn tricks for £5. One sex worker from Manchester expresses it succinctly: “No one can live on benefits long term without being seriously deprived. Benefits don’t cover the cost of gas, electric, water rates, replacing household equipment.
Most of the girls that I meet on the street are there to keep their families together; their children out of care. It gives them a little bit of control about when to have the heating on or not, instead of having to stay in bed with the covers on to stay warm. They go out for an hour and make enough money to pay a bill. We can stay in bed, live in squalor, survive on bread and jam, but personally I feel I deserve more and so does my daughter. So I choose to go on the street and earn some money because I want a better life. What I do is not dishonest. It is hard work. I wouldn’t do it if I had a choice.”
Women who escape the benefits system are often no better off. Half of all waged women work part-time, largely because of caring responsibilities, and earn less than £7 an hour. Black and immigrant women are paid up to 26 per cent less than white non-immigrant women, and are twice as likely to fall below the poverty line. Government-funded projects, which stand to benefit from forced “rehabilitation” orders, are now being promoted as the solution.
But the help they provide is limited. They give tea, condoms and access to drug services, but they were unable to prevent sex workers from being raped or murdered, as evinced by the brutal killings in Bradford. To be
effective, these services must be completely independent, and go hand in hand with decriminalisation.
Is anyone in Parliament listening? A few are. Labour MP John McDonnell has consistently worked with us against poverty and criminalisation. While chairing meetings of the Safety First Coalition, he has witnessed sex workers’ refusal to be stereotyped, and has shown himself to be accountable to the grassroots and aware of what we contribute to the movement for change. Illegality may at the moment force most sex workers into the shadows, but the English Collective of Prostitutes are spearheading the campaign for safety and decriminalisation, defying discrimination, fighting legal cases, occupying churches, marching and lobbying, forming alliances with concerned organisations, and educating the media out of assumptions and prejudices.
We are demanding basic human rights, and an end to an abusive and manipulative industry built on the continued poverty, segregation and discrimination of sex workers.
Cari Mitchell is a spokeswoman for the English Collective of Prostitutes