Sex workers require better protection

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It is critical for all levels of government to immediately improve the safety of sex workers and assist them to exit the sex trade if they are not there by choice, by providing significant resources for poverty alleviation and income support, education a

The tragedy of the missing women from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside will generate enormous media attention as the trial gets underway. As the Member of Parliament representing Vancouver East (including the Downtown Eastside), I want to express my support and sympathy to the families and friends of the missing women who continue to grieve and be exposed to the violent and horrifying experience of what happened to these women.

The tragedy of this situation is far reaching. For many in the Downtown Eastside and beyond there is a sense of loss and grief as people face the enormity of what has taken place. It raises many troubling questions about our society and about why these women were so at risk and vulnerable to violence, exploitation and death, and why so many sex workers continue to be at risk today.

The disappearance of more than 60 women from the Downtown Eastside and hundreds more from across the country, also raises deeply disturbing questions about Canada's justice system and how it failed. Despite the recent media attention to Vancouver's missing women, no significant changes have been made at any level of government to protect sex workers, who remain at risk.

I will continue to call for law reform, immediate support for exit strategies, and the need for a public inquiry, to ensure that necessary changes are made at all levels of government, to best protect the rights and safety of sex workers and affected communities.

Current laws around prostitution make street level sex workers vulnerable to selective law enforcement as well as exploitation and violence. Survival sex workers are often poor and drug dependent, and are reluctant to seek protection under the law.

Cuts in social programs and spending, together with increasing poverty, particularly over the past decade, have forced more women into survival sex trades.

The Parliamentary Committee on Justice and Human Rights recently completed its report on prostitution laws, The Challenge of Change: a Study of Canada's Criminal Prostitution Laws.

The Committee began its work October 2, 2003 as a result of my motion unanimously adopted in Parliament to review prostitution laws to improve the safety of sex trade workers and the community in general, and to make recommendations to reduce the exploitation and violence against sex trade workers.

The report outlines the failure of the criminal code to protect sex workers and local communities. When sex workers are displaced to isolated areas as a result of the communicating law, they face greater risk for harm and death and become easier targets for predators.

There was near unanimous agreement from witnesses heard at the committee that the current status and regime of law enforcement pertaining to prostitution is unworkable, contradictory and unacceptable. It has created an environment of marginalization and violence, with negative impacts on both sex workers and affected local communities.

Sex workers are fearful to report violence, assault and coercion because of their illegal status. Their poor relationship with law enforcement authorities, contributes to the danger they face. Better training of law enforcement agencies is needed.

I believe the federal government must come to terms with the contradictions and impossibility of the status quo, and engage in a process of law reform that will lead to the decriminalization of laws pertaining to prostitution and focus criminal sanctions on harmful situations.

It is also critical for all levels of government to immediately improve the safety of sex workers and assist them to exit the sex trade if they are not there by choice, by providing significant resources for poverty alleviation and income support, education and training, and treatment for addictions.

In February 2002, I called on the Mayor of Vancouver, as Chair of the Vancouver Police Board, to support an inquiry into the police investigation of the missing women to determine what happened. This public inquiry still needs to happen.

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