Perhaps our first offense is to presume that we know what she’s going through.
Even in our sophisticated, modern world, women remain vulnerable to the many forms, and many weapons, of gender inequality. Although women have the voice and the vote to create cultural change, imbalances still exist such as pay inequities, unequal responsibility for child-rearing and household maintenance, an unequal representation in business, politics, law, academic tenure, leadership, and positions of power. Jobs traditionally performed by women (like nursing or teaching small children) are still valued and paid less than those done by men (like construction or professional sports). A 1980 U.N. Report declared that women do two-thirds of the world’s work (both paid and unpaid), receive 10% of the world’s income, and own 1% of the world’s property.
The exploitation of women’s work expands to include the exploitation of women’s bodies, which are sexualized daily in movies, television, and advertising or through pornography and sex-work. An unwelcome leer, remark, touch, invitation, or coercion is a form of sexual harassment that combines gender inequality and exploitation, and it all too often goes unpunished. Inequality and exploitation also combine to form a worse threat, that of sexual violence -sexual activity within the context of, or under the very threat of, physical violence. Date rape in a college dorm room is sexual violence…and so is a sex worker being raped and beaten in an alleyway. Rape is used as a tactic in warfare…but even women in their own homes are sometimes victims of beatings, rape, and murder. Recently, a Moroccan teenager committed suicide because the man who had raped her was able to use a legal loophole allowing him to escape prosecution by marrying her. In a 1995 United Nations address, Hillary Rodham Clinton noted that, “a leading cause of death worldwide among women ages 14 to 44 is the violence they are subjected to in their own homes.” Violence against women is a very real threat, and if any woman can be vulnerable in her own home, imagine what it’s like for a woman who has no home.
Homeless people face far more violence than the general population. Among them, the more vulnerable are women, and among homeless and under-housed women, the most vulnerable are those involved in sex work. Research published in the Street Health Report 2007 states that although 40.4% of respondents had been assaulted in the previous year, even more women (46%) had been. More than 1 in 5 women had been raped, and an alarming 43% had been repeated victims of sexual harassment or assault, some more times than they could count. According to the Toronto Police Sex Crimes Unit, 4 or 5 sex workers are assaulted every single night. In Vancouver’s downtown east side, 98% of women involved in sex work continually experience extreme violence (O’Doherty, 2011). Statistics Canada figures report that between 1991 and 2004, 171 female sex workers were murdered, and 45% of those homicides remain unsolved (Subcommittee on Solicitation Laws of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, 2006). A Canadian commission found that the death rate of women in sex work was 40 times higher than that of the general population. To go beyond the statistics, on August 2, 2008 Carolyn Connolly was found murdered in an alley off Seaton Street, in Toronto’s downtown east end.
Discourses around sex work ought not to focus on morality, policing, or legislation –the first priority is about victims of exploitation and extreme violence, and about doing something to keep them safe.
The Safer Stroll Project responds to the violence, stigma, and marginalization that sex workers often experience. Launched in 2008, this collaboration between Street Health, the Bad Date Coalition, and the Regent Park Community Health Centre is aimed at increasing the capacity of sex workers and social service agencies to address violence in this community. The program trains peers support workers to defend themselves, perform street outreach, facilitate women’s drop-ins, and to share their wisdom and experience with others.
On Friday March 9, 2012 a standing-room-only crowd gathered at the All Saints Church, in celebration of International Women’s Day, for the premiere of a gripping documentary about the Safer Stroll Project. Attendees were able to applaud, network with, and learn from the Safer Stroll graduates who did not shy away from the camera, or from the issues being discussed. In the past three years, 25 peer support workers have graduated from the Safer Stroll program, empowered with safety strategies, a sense of belonging, hope for the future, and an ability to share all of this with others. These graduates have initiated 1,878 contacts with sex workers, made 3,988 referrals to community resources, and delivered 52 educational workshops to community organizations. One graduate, Brandi, feels that, “…it’s such a pleasure to be on the face of this earth doing something positive.”
However, Brandi -although positive and continuing to grow- may be among the few who are able to access this program, because funding for the Safer Stroll Project is in jeopardy. Originally financed by Status of Women Canada (a federal government organization), that funding was meant as a one- time start-up financing. Then the City of Toronto responded to the value and success of this program, but that funding too has since been lost. Although exploitation and violence are an ongoing concern, the funding required to counter it is not meeting the need. Street Health’s Mary Kay MacVicar, program co-ordinator, laments that the number of women who apply greatly, and painfully, exceeds what the funding will allow. The 4 or 5 women who are assaulted every night are victimized yet again if we can do nothing to help them.
Sex workers are often judged, ostracized, and denied rights or services, yet they are also routinely made victims of violence. That violence can become systemic if those who could help are unaware of the scope of the problem, or are unable to assist with it.
There are ways to, and rewards from, helping the most vulnerable. If you would like to support this program, and if you or your agency would like a copy of the Safer Stroll Project Documentary, please contact us because as Amy Muli (co-chair of the Bad Date Coalition) says, “…it’s a worker’s right to go to work and not get murdered on the job.”