This path breaking conference aimed to influence the UK government’s review of the prostitution laws, learn from the experience of other countries and gather support for International Prostitutes Collective (IPC) proposals to prevent further violence and criminalisation against sex workers.
As well as sex workers from a number of countries, panelists and other participants included representatives of children’s rights organisations, anti-poverty agencies, adomestic workers’ organisation, resident associations based in red light districts, human rights organisations and women’s organisations representing different sectors of women e.g. Black, immigrant and asylum seeking women, rape survivors, single mothers and lesbian women, as well as individual academics, students, social workers, youth workers,church, legal and health professionals, local government officials and media people. Many people said how delighted they were with the day and how much they learnt.
The conference gave prominence to sex workers’ views and experiences. It brought together women from the IPC network in the UK, Europe, New Zealand, United States and representatives of organisations working with sex workers in the UK, The Philippines and India. Sex workers who were unable to speak publicly, made statements about their own experiences, which were read by others to protect their anonymity. Women conveyed forcefully the impact of the widespread discrimination and violence faced by sex workers as a result of criminalisation. In introducing the conference Niki Adams, IPC said:
“As a result of sex workers organising in our own name in a number of countries over many decades, public opinion has changed dramatically. This has ensured that there has been an evaluation of the prostitution laws from the point of view of workers in the industry, so that now most people are opposed to criminalisation and aware that it makes sex workers more vulnerable to violence, and are opposed to the poverty that forces women and young people into prostitution to survive.”
She reported that over sixty prostitute women have been murdered in the last ten years. A working woman from South London spoke about how she contacted the police to report a violent rape but was told that there was an arrest warrant out for her and that if she came in she would be taken into custody and prosecuted for prostitution.
There was particular concern about the increasing use of Anti Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs). Contradicting the often glowing reports by politicians and the media, the conference heard examples of the devastating impact of ASBOs on children’s and sex workers’ lives. Youth workers described how young people are now going to prison in record numbers for breaching ASBOs. Others spoke of ASBOs being used to reintroduce prison sentences for loitering and soliciting by the back door, forcing prostitute women underground and making sex workers more vulnerable to violence. Examples were given of women and young people being banned from their local shops, schools and health resources, including those provided by sex workers’ projects.
A highlight was hearing from Catherine Healy, New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC) where decriminalisation of prostitution, a year ago, has resulted in a decrease in violence and sex workers have begun to leave the street and work more safely from premises.“Sex workers are now saying: ‘You know, I feel I’ve got dignity now, I feel like I’m on the right side of the law, I don’t feel so bad about what I’m doing, I feel I should have rights.’”
Rachel West, US PROStitutes Collective, spoke about the ground breaking two year San Francisco Task Force on prostitution which brought together sex workers with community groups on AIDS, Black and immigrant people, women, health, youth, as well as lawyers, the Mayor’s office, the police and residents.“We had pressed for decriminalization throughout but it was a great thrill for us when a resolution was put to the Task Force to support it at a historic meeting where the resolution was overwhelmingly passed.”
The Reverend Paul Nicolson, Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, an organization which works with families and individuals against debt gave a detailed breakdown of inadequate levels of social security benefits and concluded:“Buying the things that most people consider necessary can become impossible at the lowest levels of income in the UK without deciding to buy cheap, filling and fattening food, borrow from a loan shark, burglary, shoplift, bend the benefit rules, carrying drugs from A to B at £50 a time or, for some, enter prostitution.”
Dr Helen Ward, Imperial College, provided evidence to counter the myth that prostitute women are spreading disease. Nushra Mapstone, British Association of Social Workers, spoke about the lack of essential frontline services and how social workers are under pressure to adopt a punitive, surveillance approach. Terri Dowty, Action on the Rights of Children, expressed outrage at the government going back on promises to decriminalise child prostitution.
The panel on trafficking exposed many myths. Abhijit Dasgupta, former co-ordinator of the anti-trafficking programme of Action Aid International, in a videoed speech spoke of the way governments are using anti-trafficking legislation to strengthen immigration controls while ignoring widespread exploitation in sweatshops and agriculture.
“We’re of the strong belief that women don’t join prostitution unless there is poverty, unless they have family to look after. . . . Poverty is a major factor that makes people move countries. Some of the industrialised, developed countries countries — the US, the UK, parts of Western Europe, Australia, Japan – the so called G7, have been trying to curb movement, but the way they are going about it has come under very serious criticism. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees and the International Labour Office said that the immigration laws were leading to more people being trafficked, in the sense that people had to resort to traffickers to get them across borders. Faced with this criticism, the big countries then devised something called “organised crime.” The media has walked gullibly into this trap and now we hear of millions of women being trafficked.”
Crucial background information was presented on the extreme poverty, war and environmental devastation in the global South, which force many women into prostitution at home and abroad, as well as into poverty and the inadequacy of welfare benefits in the UK. It was clear that there is little help for those who are victims of trafficking, and that the threat of deportation is the biggest obstacle to women and young people who are being exploited being able to come forward. A domestic worker spoke of being trafficked into the UK.
A teenage asylum seeker who escaped forced prostitution in Africa and was trafficked to the UK spoke about being disbelieved by the Home Office. Sex workers from Albania, working in Soho, refuted the media stereotypes that they are controlled by the mafia:
Some of us are Albanian but that doesn’t mean we are being controlled by anyone. I have a five year old son and I work for myself and for him. . . No-one forces me. [The police] come round the flats quite regularly, but they come in a group of about seven with immigration officers. . . . They don’t ask us anything about our situation, . . . They treat us badly . . . They are only looking for girls who have no papers. They take those girls away and deport them.
In the weeks after the conference the IPC was asked to comment frequently in the press, including on reports about Local Authority proposals to establish ‘zones of tolerance’ for street workers. Women in our network, working in red-light areas put forward their views that the zones would not improve women’s safety and that most women would refuse to work in them.
The other major achievement of the conference was the formation of a coalition of sympathetic organisations and prominent individuals who are working on related issues such as poverty and legal rights and who are ready to defend prostitute women against injustice and discrimination from the point of view of the work they do. A Greater London Assembly member who attended the conference immediately arranged for members of the Safer London Committee to meet Catherine Healy (NZPC) so that the UK can learn from New Zealand’s decriminalisation legislation. The English Collective of Prostitutes also gave evidence to this committee. Many participants expressed an interest in pursuing the issues discussed and particularly wanted to act against ASBOs.
We were particularly delighted at the number of messages of support from sex worker organisations in other countries including countries of the South. Many said they endorsed the IPC demands to improve women’s safety and some sent detailed information about the situation of sex workers from where they are. Women from Kenya wrote:
“I congratulate you for showing determination to improve the rights of women prostitutes worldwide. You have patiently provided advice and encouragement as well as creative illustrations . . . The loaded answers you provided was a clear look at our plight in Kenya and enhanced our struggle for our rights.”
Women from South Africa wrote:
“We can identify many of the injustices raised in the response to the government consultation paper. It is crucial that we stand together against continued criminalisation and institutionalised violence against mainly women and children.”
A packed press conference was held the day before the conference which resulted in good coverage on local, national and international radio, and in local newspapers.