The tragic murder of Maria Duque-Tunjano last Friday shows the dangers of women working alone. Sex workers are prevented by the brothel-keeping laws from working together from premises and this deprives women of protection they are entitled to and have been able to organise for themselves. Working from premises is 10 times safer than working on the street. And working with other women (other sex workers and/or a maid) is safer still.
It is believed that the same man had previously attacked another sex worker. Could the killing of Ms Dunque-Tunjano been prevented if this attack had been investigated? How many other attacks have gone unreported because sex workers fear arrest, and for those of us who are immigrant, deportation?
After Ms Duque-Tunjano’s death the police once again proclaimed that the “personal safety of sex workers is of paramount importance”. Why then are police raids and arrests continuing against women who are working collectively and independently, and usually discreetly, without exerting any force or coercion on anyone? Police warnings to sex workers to be cautious are insulting considering that sex workers are deterred from report violence to the police for fear that they may be prosecuted themselves for prostitution offences. Last December, 250 officers raided flats in Soho resulting in sex workers being dragged from their flats in their underwear in front of media photographers. Many women had worked in Soho for decades in relative safety with a maid.[i] It is not illegal to exchange sexual services for money. Why are sex workers being prosecuted? What is their crime?
A woman working in south London commented:
“On the one hand the police are warning girls to take care and on the other hand, they are not allowing us to have someone with us for safety. I have been seriously attacked whilst working alone and later prosecuted when I worked with friends for safety. The police only use the law when it suits them and have no concern for our safety”.
The criminalisation of prostitution also severely undermines safety for women working on the street. Mariane Popa was murdered in Ilford on 28 October.[ii] This killing occurred in the wake of a police crackdown which has resulted in over 200 “prostitute cautions” being issued to women in the area over the last year, and many arrests for loitering and soliciting. Senior police officers have since voiced concerns that “operations to tackle the trade are ‘counterproductive’ and likely to put the lives of women at risk.”[iii]
How many other women will lose their lives before politicians, the police and others in authority decide to prioritise safety and decriminalise prostitution. In December, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously struck down the prostitution laws because they make it “dangerous” for prostitute women and infringe their constitutional rights. New Zealand decriminalised prostitution in 2003. Five years later a comprehensive government review reported favourably on the change saying that there had been no increase in prostitution, and that crucially sex workers are more able to report violence and leave prostitution.[iv]
[i] http://www.westendextra.com/news/2013/dec/sex-workers-anger-riot-police-raid-40-premises-soho-stolen-goods-clampdown and http://feministing.com/2013/12/11/guest-post-the-soho-raids-were-not-about-trafficking/