When will sex workers’ safety be prioritised?

A man has been charged with the murder of three women in Bradford. 
When will sex workers’ safety be prioritised?
The discovery of a woman’s body, now confirmed to be that of Suzanne Blamires, has focussed press attention on the disappearances of three women in Bradford.  Stephen Griffiths has been charged with their murder.   Our heartfelt sympathies go out to the families and friends of Susan Rushworth, Shelly Armitage and Suzanne Blamires. 
The public outrage over the murder of five young women in Ipswich – where the police were slow to connect the deaths and act effectively – seems to have spurred the police into adequate action this time. 
Yet Susan Rushworth disappeared a year ago, and we don’t why it has taken so long to find her murderer.  And the scandalously prejudiced and incompetent investigation into the Yorkshire Ripper, who murdered 13 women, some of them in Bradford, and attacked many more, has not left our minds – leads were not pursued because the police considered sex workers’ lives to have no value.  Many more women died as a result.
Although Griffiths has been charged, the police should declare an amnesty from arrest for prostitution offences so that anyone with information can come forward without fear of arrest.  If Griffiths is guilty, he is a serial attacker who has been operating for some time and it is likely that other women have suffered at his hands – they may have valuable information to the extent of his crimes, as may clients and others.  If he is not guilty, the information other women may have is urgently needed.
Despite the announcement of Griffiths’s prosecution, we must ask: how many more times do families and communities have to go through this agony?  Sex workers continue to pay the price for decades of criminalisation and, more recently, for a government-led moral crusade against prostitution.  Safety has been discarded and must now be prioritised. 
Serial murderers tend to have a history of rape and other violence, including domestic violence.  Women Against Rape reports that the conviction rate for reported rape in West Yorkshire is 8%, slightly higher than the national average but still shamefully low.  If women were able to come forward to report attacks and these were vigorously investigated, violent men could be stopped, maybe even before they kill.  Sex workers face particular obstacles in getting justice.  One woman from Bradford who was assaulted four times commented: “I didn’t bother to report because I knew that nothing would be done.”
Women in our network in Bradford complain about increased arrests, raids and prosecutions, especially since the Policing and Crime Act.  One woman working from premises reported a campaign of racist attacks, including faeces being smeared on her windows – the police did nothing.  But a few days later she was arrested and charged with “running a disorderly house” – an ancient offence which is no longer on the statute books.  Proceeds of Crime legislation is fuelling prosecutions as the police get a cut of any money or assets seized.  In Scotland, when kerb-crawling offences were introduced attacks on sex workers doubled. 
The economic crisis and now proposals to slash welfare benefits and other community resources, to pay for a debt run up by voracious bankers, are forcing more women, particularly mothers, into prostitution to support themselves and their families.  Police raids are driving them underground and into more danger.  
Seven years ago New Zealand successfully decriminalised prostitution. While there has been no increase in prostitution, sex workers are now more able to come forward and report violence. 
 
The feminist ministers who championed the Policing and Crime Act and other laws that increased the criminalisation of sex workers and clients, refused to pay attention to what New Zealand had achieved.  Decriminalisation is Liberal Democrats party policy.  Will they implement it before more women lose their precious lives? 
 
English Collective of Prostitutes   020 7482 2496   ecp@allwomencount.net   www.prostitutescollective.net

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