Short term vs. long term plans

18 07 2009

Short term: We need safety measures immediately.

  • Restore MAP van.
  • Provide cell phones for the women on the streets so they can call 911 if they are in trouble or see someone else in need of help.
  • Provide more funding so that shelters can be open longer and serve more individuals.

Long term: We need to remove stigma and the barriers to obtaining “legitimate” employment.

  • One of the barriers is not having a fixed address. Fix the current housing situation so that more people have access to adequate housing.
  • Remove stigma – we need a long-running campaign to persuade people to change their minds about the sex trade. These workers are not throwaways – they are someone’s daughter, mother, aunt, girlfriend, best friend, grandmother….
  • Increase communications initiatives between bands and First Nations women who have left their communities. Currently, women do not “call home” because there is stigma around leaving home and not returning as a “successful” individual.
  • Expand on projects such as the Aboriginal Mother Centre. This centre provides a safe place for women to gather with their children, an early education program for young children and a program is being developed for exit strategies to help sex trade workers get off the street. There are also 16 beds available as “transitional supportive housing“.
  • Increase the education levels of Aboriginal students so that if they choose to leave their communities, they are well equipped for mainstream Canadian society.
  • Develop new strategies for “harm reduction”, “prevention”  and “treatment” from the Four Pillars Drug Strategy. Drug addiction and prostitution often go hand in hand.

With our limited time and resources, we have decided to concentrate on implementing short term strategies to help ensure the safety of women who are in street-level sex trade. The strategy we are planning to embark on is the idea of providing cell phones for the purpose of calling for help if it is needed.

As a society, we are responsible for the well-being of our most vulnerable citizens. If someone wants to leave “the life”, they should have the tools needed to do so. If they don’t, then their work environment should be as safe as that of any Canadian worker. This is a matter of human rights.



Our First Nations Sisters

18 07 2009

I met with Mark Selman on Thursday and we had a great conversation about First Nations communities and why there were so many Aboriginal women in the Downtown Eastside. Mark is the program chair of the Learning Strategies Group and has a special interest in First Nations issues.

Often, Aboriginal women who are in troubled situations with their families or are pregnant feel compelled to leave their small communities on reserves. Once they have left, where do they go? As with most people leaving small communities, the push is to head towards the cities. In BC, the main “big city” is Vancouver.

Once in Vancouver, they are cut off from their support networks and there is an abundance of drugs and alcohol. For women escaping situations that have brought pain into their lives, these substances bring a certain relief. Their pain is especially poignant when one realizes that many of these women who were pregnant upon arriving in Vancouver have had their children seized by the ministry.

If you give birth in a BC hospital and you are unable to provide a fixed address or prove that you are able to care for the child, social services is contacted and the child is removed. While these actions may be well-intentioned, there is no denying that it leaves the mothers as worse off as they originally were with the ADDED BURDEN of the knowledge that their child was ripped from their arms moments after delivery.

Added to these issues is the fact that many of these women have insufficient levels of education and skills that are deemed unmarketable by society. Their teachers expected them to fail in school, and often, that was indeed the end result.

Eventually, these factors add to a desperate situation in which the women need to eat and they need to feed a newly developed addiction.  Obviously, when one has no other real choice, one does what one must. The reality is, if I was ever in this situation – sell sex or starve, I would make the same choice as many of these women.


The business of sex and violence

10 07 2009

When we look at sex trade, we must admit, that it is a business. Whether it is organized or unorganized, from the streets or at higher-end places such as strip clubs or micro-brothels. From our interview with SFU’s own Chris Atchison, we’ve learned a lot about the business models.

On the streets, where survival sex trade workers are usually unorganized and work for their own,  business is simpler. Where there is a buyer, a seller, an agreeable price, sex trade will take place. Unfortunately though, street sex workers are more vulnerable to violence such as physical and verbal abuse, rape, robbery and even murder. Mainly because they sell sex on the streets. And they have little time to decide if it was safe or not to get into a client’s car. They only have little time too, to judge whether or not a client is safe to date.
A lot of times, violence against these women were induced by things as simple as a client refusing to wear a condom. And the chance of violence happening is that when a client take a sex worker to industrial area, where nobody is around.

On the higher levels, where the operations usually go under the radar, business is more complicated, even dysfunctional. With Canadian laws prohibiting brothels or “bawdy houses”, these operations are somewhat invisible. Operations such as escort services, massage parlours, and strip clubs often offer sex as part of the services. And they have legal business permits. Sex trade workers are more organized under these operations, in the sense they they work in a contained space, with people who decides which client to date or who can see a certain client. The other word: pimps. Some establishments though, run more loosely. Where the sex workers can choose whom to date or who is going to date a certain client.
Violence however, happens less in these businesses. Because of the contained space and the women have more time in judging whether or not a client is safe to date.
What makes the business complicated though, is the sex workers would have to pay a big cut to the business owners. Many of them are being economically exploited. And sometimes these women don’t even have access to their pay until a certain time. Then again, the sex trade workers are disadvantaged.

Some women though, are better-off from working through these kinds of businesses. High paying clients are not too difficult to find. And some micro-brothels, are well organized that they have sex workers who actually work by choice.

So can legalizing brothels actually be a good solution to reduce violence?

Does anyone care?

9 07 2009

Following Jason’s post on the “fate” of Aboriginal women, there are some questions that need to be asked.

Why are Aboriginal women disproportionately represented in street-level sex work? Why are they “over-represented for both HIV/AIDS“? When Aboriginal women living on the streets go missing, why don’t the police and society react as quickly?

This inaction is especially absurd when compared to rescue of a UBC student who went missing…in this case, 200 officers were assigned and $1.2 million was spent. In contrast, a $100000 reward was posted to secure the locations of 31 women, after much controversy. There was a suggestion of $100000 for the safe return for EACH woman, but apparently, society found that absurd.This reward is still less, per missing individual, than the “usual reward of a single homicide” which is $10000. By my math, the reward should have been $310000 as most of these women were already presumed dead.

Missing Women

To put this into context, the same week that this reward is put out after the long-time disappearances of these women, a $100000 reward was offered after one week of suburban robberies.

A reporter of the Vancouver Courier commented that the heated discussions for the missing women reward were happening as the cell phone plan ($3000 for 100 “safety” cell phones) had been struck down as a waste of taxpayer money. He then wrote, “It seems these women are worth far more to us dead than alive.”

While I do not wish to trivialize his ordeal – no one should ever have to go through what he did, the kidnap victim (who lived in the “wealthy Southlands area of Vancouver”) was found within 8 days. In comparison, some of the missing women from the DTES had been missing for 9 years. Not even their bodies have been recovered.

According to Vancouver’s Missing Women, 71 women are still listed as missing, many of whom were/are of First Nations descent.

Does anyone care?

Mobile Access Project in Jeopardy

2 07 2009

The Mobile Access Project (MAP) is the result of the collaboration between the WISH Drop-In Centre and the PACE (Prostitutes Alternatives Counseling & Education) Society with funding from the province of British Columbia. MAP takes the form of a van that operates 7 days a week from 10:30pm until 5:30am (when all of the stores have closed) in the Downtown Eastside (DTES). This van is staffed by 3 women, at least one of whom have been a survival sex trade worker.


They pass out coffee, juice, water, condoms, clean needles and other supplies. Most importantly, they converse with sex trade workers and these workers know that there is someone who cares about their well-being.

In the WISH Drop-in Centre’s “Evaluation of the Mobile Access Project (MAP)” report written in 2006, MAP employees estimate that the van serves 1500 women a month and reaches the “most marginalized women in the DTES” .

  • Over 90% of sex trade workers said that the van’s presence made them feel “safer on the street”.
  • 16% remember a specific time when the van’s presence saved them from being physically assaulted.
  • 10% remember a specific time when the van’s presence saved them from being sexually assaulted.
  • 57% of sex trade workers report “bad dates” (clients who didn’t pay and/or assaulted the worker) which have been linked to Robert Pickton’s murder conviction.
  • 1200 used needles were collected per month
  • Predators who work in the DTES area know about the presence of the van and the support workers for the sex trade workers.

When the report was written, it was concluded that the MAP project had succeeded in its goal of harm reduction by reducing the number of sexually transmitted infections including HIV. The project has also allowed the most marginalized women in Vancouver to obtain help when they need it and know that someone will notice if they or another “regular” goes missing.

Though this project has helped reduce the number of health problems in the area, given the sex trade workers a sense of safety, deterred predators from abusing sex trade workers, led the resolution of violent crimes…the funding of this project is now under review.

On March 21, 2009, CTV reports that the annual cost of $265000 needed to pay the employees and provide supplies for the van may no longer be funded by the province. It was pointed out to the Minister of Public Safety and the Minister of Housing and Social Development that the cities of Victoria, Calgary and Halifax have sister programs, to which the answer was “We’ll see.”

Due to this lack of funding, MAP ceased operations on June 12, 2009, according to a Vancouver Sun article written on June 4, 2009. In a city that can afford what some have called a “5 ring circus” or a “2 week party”, this is not good enough. We can not sacrifice the well-being of the most vulnerable sector of our society for any reason.