Fighting violence against women in Vancouver's sex trade

It's been 22 years since the Montreal massacre. We talk violence against women, and ways to end it, with survival sex work organizer Jennifer Allan, founder of Jen's Kitchen. She experienced violence in the survival sex industry first-hand, but today, she supports those in the trade and pushes for change.

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Recently, she traveled to cities across Canada meeting with sex worker advocacy organizations and police forces, documenting the murders and disappearances of survival sex workers. While she found police forces took a range of helpful and unhelpful approaches in different cities, she felt the Vancouver Police Department is among the worst (perhaps second to Winnipeg, she suggested).
 
“The Vancouver police are responsible for those missing and murdered women, because they turned their back on them when they needed them the most,” she said. “We all know if those women were rich white women from, say, Kitsilano, the police would have been right there and done something about it.
 
“But because the women were survival sex workers -- they were poor, some were First Nations, some were poor white women – the police turned their back on them. And as far as Vancouver police are concerned, I believe that they viewed Robert Pickton as just cleaning up the garbage.”
 
Allan's passion for documenting missing and murdered sex workers across Canada began after her best friend and fellow street worker died eleven years ago – and although police claimed she died of asthma, Allan is certain her friend was murdered as she did not have asthma.* In fact, Lee's body was discovered under a car with her pants around her ankles, Allan said -- and her mouth was stuffed with gravel.
 
But she also has a larger goal – to take the issue to the United Nations and shame Canada into striking down prostitution laws, and creating social services aimed at helping women in the survival sex industry. Those services include long-term trauma counselling, 24-hour safe houses and phone lines aimed at sex workers, affordable housing for workers and their children, access to education and – perhaps most importantly – adapting a gay community strategy and having violence against sex workers declared a hate crime with enhanced sentences.
 
“We have an epidemic of violence and discrimination against this group of people,” she said, finishing her turkey-and-stuffing sandwich as we both sipped on Cokes. “How are we supposed to help these women in the survival sex trade deal with violence if we're not willing to fund the organizations that help them?”
 
In fact, both support agencies which helped Allan exit the trade -- the Providing Alternatives Counselling and Education society (PACE) and the Prostitutes Empowerment Education and Resources Society (PEERS) -- have lost their funding from the provincial government and announced they will close their doors in the coming months. But such services – including Jen's Kitchen – do make a difference for survival sex workers, she insisted.
 
“You're not just fighting all this stuff on your own, you're not fighting your addiction by yourself, you're not fighting poverty and violence on your own – you have people you can go to,” she said. “I think I'm just following in the footsteps of my grandma and my mum. They inspire me.”
 
In Vancouver, events will be held today with a 1 p.m. ceremony on the Vancouver Art Gallery lawn, organized by Women Against Violence Against Women. A second event – the launch of the Métis Women: Strong and Beautiful Project (Poster PDF) – is planned from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre (1607 East Hastings Street).

* Correction (Dec. 11, 2011): Allan did not grow up on a Yukon reserve, but in an adoptive Nova Scotia family.

* Correction (Dec. 11, 2011): It was police -- not doctors, Allan said -- who insisted her best friend, Kim Lee, died of asthma. 

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