Stop criminalising the victims

Plans to make sex workers undergo compulsory counselling are tokenistic, unworkable and dangerous

Steve Wright was yesterday found guilty of murdering five women who were working in prostitution in Ipswich.

As this verdict was delivered, the contentious debate over what kind of legislative measures would really make a difference to the lives of vulnerable women in prostitution is continuing in Westminster.

One of the measures proposed by the current criminal justice and immigration bill is the mandatory "rehabilitation" of women in prostitution. Under the bill, if a woman (or man) in street prostitution were picked up by the police, they would be obliged to attend three appointments with support workers, such as drugs counsellors or housing advisers. If they missed a meeting, they could be held in custody for up to three days.

Undoubtedly, this policy will lead to many women being sent to prison by the backdoor.

Women in street prostitution, many of whom are addicted to class-A drugs, and have chaotic lifestyles, are unlikely to arrive promptly at these one-off appointments to discuss how they might reform their character.

In many cases, women in street prostitution have experienced serious abuse and are working in prostitution as a result of severe poverty. The tokenistic solution of demanding these women attend three appointments with counsellors would be laughable if it were not so potentially damaging.

New Labour has brought in similar measures to deal with other forms of "anti-social behaviour", and the failure of these policies has already demonstrated the unworkable nature of mandatory rehabilitation. For example, coercive treatment for drug addicts has been found to be both costly and ineffective, because people forced into treatment by the criminal justice system are highly likely to drop out of rehabilitation programmes.

Similar measures aimed at women in prostitution are liable to be even more disastrous. The probation officers who would enforce mandatory rehabilitation orders are already over-stretched, and do not have the relevant resources to deal with the complex issues women in prostitution face. In addition, because service provision in this area is woefully inadequate, it is not clear to which services the government intends probation officers to refer the women.

Where support services for women in prostitution do exist, they often focus on providing basic health services. Very few have the capacity to address issues such as client violence, housing needs, drug counselling and education.

For example, 15 London boroughs have no sexual health outreach provision for women in the sex industry at all. A recent survey found that 82% of support agencies in London identified a lack of provision of safe housing for women wishing to exit prostitution or leave violent pimps.

Besides which, many of the support service organisations that do exist oppose mandatory rehabilitation and are unlikely to cooperate with the government by enforcing this measure if it becomes law.

The Ipswich murders have given us a glimpse of the reality faced by women in prostitution. In the UK, the mortality rate of women in prostitution is 12 times that of the wider female population. There is an urgent need for the government to change its approach and stop treating women who are subject to violence as criminals.

Instead of wasting money on tokenistic compulsory rehabilitation that will benefit nobody, the government should make a proper investment in support services that will offer real choices to women in prostitution.

Sarah Campbell

The GuardianTramp

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