Justice committee fears for safety of prostitutes

MPs to examine laws many feel are doing more harm than good

Dan Gardner
The Ottawa Citizen

Sunday, February 23, 2003

Parliament's justice committee will examine the plight of prostitutes and consider whether the criminal law itself may be putting them in harm's way. A motion by NDP MP Libby Davies passed with all-party support two weeks ago.

Ms. Davies represents Vancouver's blighted downtown eastside, the poor, drug-ridden neighbourhood from which more than 60 women working in the sex trade have vanished. Robert Pickton is charged with the deaths of 15 of the women. But Ms. Davies says the issue goes far beyond Vancouver.

"We're seeing quite a horrendous situation in Edmonton, where two women were found murdered and there's other women missing," she notes.

Many other MPs who spoke on the motion said their ridings are affected as well. "(Liberal MP) Marlene Jennings was speaking about Montreal. (Canadian Alliance MP) Jay Hill was speaking about Prince George. It became very clear that MPs are aware of this issue in their local communities. And I think that's why the motion had such strong support."

Statistics Canada says 73 prostitutes have been murdered over the past decade, although that number seriously understates the reality because it only includes prostitutes known by police to have been working at the time of their deaths. It also excludes prostitutes who have simply vanished, including Vancouver's missing women. Two-thirds of the known murders occurred outside B.C.

Ms. Davies says that record shows there's something very wrong with the status quo. "The Criminal Code hasn't worked. It's not helping women involved in the sex trade, in fact it's hurting them. It's not helping local communities. So how do we look at this outside the box? How do we reduce the harm, the violence and the exploitation and so on?"

Similar questions are being asked in other countries. In Australia, some states have liberalized their prostitution laws while others are considering reforms. Holland formally legalized the sex trade two years ago after decades of openly tolerating it. Sweden is the only country to go in the other direction in recent years, having more strictly criminalized the sex trade in 1999.

The issue is also being raised in the United Kingdom. Margo MacDonald, a member of the Scottish Parliament, is pushing a bill that would allow city councils to set up "tolerance zones" -- designated streets where prostitution would be permitted under certain conditions.

Ms. MacDonald's bill is based on experience: Her riding in the city of Edinburgh had a tolerance zone for almost two decades until complaints from new neighbours shut it down.

The tolerance zone was much safer, Ms. MacDonald says. Violence against prostitutes was "minimal, absolutely minimal. You're talking about less than one reported attack a month. The attacks have gone from 11 in the last year of the tolerance zone to about 35 that have been reported in five or six months (since the zone closed)."

 Copyright 2003 The Ottawa Citizen

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