Recent Belfast Feminist Network event on sex industry.

I’ve been so busy with Belfast Feminist Network of late that blogging has definitely taken a back seat. I don’t mind though. I always wanted to be an activist, surrounded by activists supporting each other, making a noise, refusing to back down. And getting to do stuff like this…

(Post originally appeared in UK Feminista here.)

As the Facebook group for Belfast Feminist Network hit 200 members and our fortnightly meetings began to attract more keen new people with each one, we decided to host a public awareness raising evening on the subject of the sex industry. In fact it was something we’d had in the pipeline for a while as we discussed feminist activities on the issue in other parts of the UK and Ireland. We wanted to learn more about this industry as it is currently playing out in Northern Ireland. Given the cultural peculiarities of this place, it is really important that we don’t try to import campaigns and activist strategies from other places without doing everything we can to find out what’s really happening for women and girls involved in the sex industry in our own towns and cities.

The event was advertised as:

Understanding the sex industry in Northern Ireland.

How do young people get into prostitution?
What happens to trafficked women and girls?
Is the law failing to protect exploited people?
Does the sex industry promote violence against women?
_________________________________________________

Awareness raising event
Queen’s University Students’ Union
Club room 2 (3rd floor)
Tuesday 7th September, 7:30pm
_________________________________________________

This event is open to anyone who would like to become more informed about the impact of the sex industry on women and girls in our communities. As feminist activists we would like to begin shaping a challenge to the exploitation this industry is built on and have invited a panel of experienced professionals to share their insights and field our many questions. We are very excited about hearing from these women, all of whom are passionate about protecting vulnerable people from sexual exploitation. Please join us and share this invitation with anyone you think might be interested.

Helen Beckett: Barnardos Safe Choices Service
Anna Lo: Alliance Party MLA, South Belfast
Patricia Campbell: Amnesty International (replaced by Ciarnan Helferty due to illness)
Rebecca Dudley: Human rights researcher and training consultant

We partnered with QUB’s student Amnesty group and between us managed to get the word out so that over 70 people turned up! Pretty astounding and totally caught us out with not enough chairs :O)

The input from the speakers on the night was amazing – so much experience and insight from people who work at the forefront of advocating for, supporting and uncovering the experiences of women and girls who have been sexually exploited. The questions and comments from the floor unpacked the issues even further and made us humbly aware of the depth of experience and knowledge of those who had chosen to come along and be part of the conversation.

It’s worth noting that the meeting took place just a few days after the police anti-trafficking brothel raids on 3rd September, during which 7 Belfast brothels were uncovered and 15 people removed. This had generated a large amount of media coverage and so unsurprisingly much of the evening’s discussion focused on this particular form of sexual exploitation. Anna Lo spoke very movingly of the experiences of young Chinese women she has spent time with, reminding us all of the people behind the headlines. Ciarnan Helferty from Amnesty talked passionately about the need to tackle poverty and oppression of women internationally if we hope to effectively address the issue of trafficking. He also shared with everyone copies of the Northern Ireland section of the June 2010 report by the Anti Trafficking Monitoring Group. Human rights specialist Rebecca Dudley also highlighted the horror of trafficking but was keen to remind us that a focus on the experiences of these women should not distract us from the many layers of exploitation that can lead women and girls into prostitution from our own communities. As Catherine MacKinnon said in 1993, “If prostitution is a free choice, why are the women with the fewest choices the ones most often found doing it?” Helen Beckett gave an update on the work of Barnardos Safe Choices project and the experiences of children and young people who have been groomed and sexually exploited. The research attached to the service provided to young people is in its early stages but will be extremely important in helping unravel the path into prostitution that many women take, beginning for many with people exploiting their vulnerability.

Of all the issues covered there were a couple of points that emerged as potential areas for the Belfast Feminist Network to take forward in the immediate future:

1. The support available to trafficked women after they have been removed from brothels is completely failing them. Women’s Aid receive government funding to provide housing for them for 45 days during which time they must decide whether or not to testify against their abusers. Those who feel they are unable to work with the police are then left completely destitute – Women’s Aid currently fundraise as much as they can to continue to support them as they try to recover but this in not sustainable. Not enough consideration is being given to the complexities of fear and trauma these women face and many disappear and are driven back into the hands of the traffickers because we aren’t properly meeting their needs. This is compounded by the ‘no recourse to public funds’ policy which means there is no support available at all to those who need to stay in the UK while they try to rebuild their lives.

2. The system for identifying people who have been trafficked is ‘not fit for purpose’ and allows traffickers to further control their vicitms by convincing them they will be viewed as illegal immigrants and criminals should they go to the authorities. In order to send a clear message to victims that they can seek help there must be a new approach to how trafficked people’s immigration status is assessed. The low numbers of people identified as having been trafficked (just 25 in total in Northern Ireland) are a completely inadequate reflection of the real picture, which those working with victims can testify to. At the heart of the problem is the fact that the National Referral Mechanism depends on decisions made by the UK Border Agency, whose primary concern is controlling immigration; a concern that can conflict with their ability to objectively identify and protect victims. Critics of the system suggest that there is an underlying belief that women lie about being trafficked in order to stay in the country and that the whole system needs to be completely transformed if it is to meet the obligations of the Council of Europe Convention on Action Against Human Trafficking.

3. It is cash from the pockets of Northern Irish men that continues to fund the industry we are trying to challenge. We have to smash the veneer of discretion that allows men to pay for sex with the frightened and abused foreign women and vulnerable young people we heard about at this meeting. None of the panelists had much faith in the effectiveness of recent legislative changes making it illegal to pay for sex where force or coercion has been involved. One mentioned the risk of driving the brothels further underground, making it even harder to get help to the women under the control of pimps and traffickers. Another noted that while well-intentioned it is a half-hearted piece of legislation that will be difficult to properly enforce. While the best way to tackle the demand side of this industry may be hard to agree on, it is clear that we must find ways to challenge the misogyny that it is built on.

So there you go. If all of that hasn’t completely exhausted you, there was also a piece in the Belfast Telegraph which covered the event and was really effective at putting across the feminist approach to the issue. It is here: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/local-national/northern-ireland/sex-slavery-the-northern-ireland-connection-14941886.html

To finish, our discussion at this meeting left me in no doubt that the government’s refusal to sign up to the EU trafficking law because we apparently already do this really well is laughable. Keep the pressure on!

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