14 December 2006

Sex Workers in Coventry

Lyn Matthews has a letter in the Guardian today. She set up one of the first outreach projects in Britain aimed at reducing drug-related harm and preventing the spread of HIV infection among Liverpool's street sex workers. She writes:

Draconian policing of the problem of street sex work only drives women further into the shadows. Yes, the law is the law; but when laws endanger some of the most vulnerable women in our society, then they are clearly at odds with humanity and wrong. Making women work longer hours to pay fines, hide in the shadows while trying to work undetected or serving ASBOs on them to prevent them from working make the laws and society complicit in the murders of these women [in Suffolk].
In November 2006, the Terrence Higgins Trust released a year-long study of Coventry women sex workers by their SWISH project (Sex Workers Into Sexual Health).

It found that drug use and housing conditions affect the risks sex workers take with their sexual health. Economic need was the main factor in starting sex work. Crack and heroin were a major problem for street-based sex workers, and more than half of respondents (51%) and all street based workers, had been homeless at some point in their lives. Finally, more than a third of women had been in prison at some point in their lives. Nearly half had received no support while in prison, and less than a quarter had been supported when they left prison.

The study recommended that:

- education and skills training was needed
- particular care should be given to supporting women leaving prison
- women who are homeless are more likely to take sexual risks which place a higher burden on public health
- women working in-doors are more likely to be in control of their personal and working lives.

Chloe, an ex-sex worker from Coventry said:

"Women who start work in the sex industry are often in a very desperate situation, either because of drug addiction or because they are in abusive and unhealthy relationships. Having the right support from projects like SWISH can really help them to regain control over their lives."
The SWISH study seems to mirror what has been adopted as official Green Party policy:

- All aspects of sex work involving consenting adults should be decriminalised. Workers in the sex industry should enjoy the same rights as other workers such as the right to join unions ... Legal discrimination against sex workers should be ended (for example, in child custody cases, where evidence of sex work is often taken to mean that a person is an unfit parent).

- Although people should be free to engage in sex work if they wish, this is an industry which can be more exploitative than others, and those who work in it should be adequately protected against such exploitation. There should be zero tolerance of coercion, violence, or sexual abuse (including child abuse). Those who have been trafficked into the country and forced to work in the sex industry against their will should receive protection under the law. There should be legal support for sex workers who want to sue those who exploit their labour unfairly, and access to re-training for those sex workers who want to leave the industry. As far as possible, public services, the Government and legal system should aim to end those social attitudes which stigmatise those who are, or have been, sex workers.

- The use of commercial premises as brothels should be legalised, and such brothels should be subject to licensing by local authorities to ensure protection of those working there and clients from abuse, and protection of the local community from nuisance and abuse ... Particular areas should be designated where street prostitutes can work in safety without upsetting local residents and traders. Such areas should be decided by negotiation between the police, prostitutes and/or their representatives, and the residents and/or their representatives.

- Local authorities and the health service should ensure that such street workers have ready access to health facilities and advice about the health risks of their work. Regular health checks should be available to all sex workers, free of charge, to protect both them and their clients.

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