Residents in Tower Hamlets met in Bethnal Green yesterday to discuss the growing number of arrests of ‘sex workers’ in the area in the run up to the Olympics and the failure to target kerb crawlers.The public meeting, held at St Margaret’s House, was part of an initiative by the Residents’ Solidarity Campaign to highlight what they consider to be the ‘unfair’ targeting of prostitutes by police in an attempt to ‘clean up the streets’ ahead of the Games.
Tessa Horvath, campaigner and resident of Tower Hamlets said,“It is easier for the police to target prostitutes, who tend to frequent the same areas and stay in the same place. Kerb crawlers are on the move. Also, historically, women are seen to be the ones to blame, not men.”
Tower Hamlets has seen more arrests of sex workers this year than in the whole of 2011. According to Toynbee Hall’s ‘Safe Exit’ charity, 48 arrests have been made since January 2012, compared to a total of 44 arrests last year. Many of those arrested are given Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, preventing them from returning to the area.
Horvath, considers the rise in the number of arrests to be worrying. “Whilst the police claim that this is in response to complaints from residents, we wanted to speak out and make it clear that this was not being done in our name,” she explained.
“We are calling for an end to the criminalisation of women in this way. Once arrested, these women are displaced from their communities and unable to access the services they need. Instead we need to focus on providing these women with the relevant support services to help them to exit prostitution.”
Representatives at the meeting included local independent councillor for Bromley-By-Bow Rania Khan, ‘Safe Exit’ charity representative Marta Dapenda Calvo and Chief Inspector Nigel Nottage of Tower Hamlets police. A petition of more than 300 signatures was delivered to Chief Inspector Nottage at the meeting, appealing to the local authorities and the police to change their current approach to the policing of sex workers in the borough.
Whilst prostitution itself is not a criminal offence, solicitation in a public place is. The acts of kerb-crawling and running brothels are also illegal. However, the focus of the majority of the recent arrests has been on the women.
Campaigners point towards Sweden, where it is illegal for men to purchase sexual services but not for women to provide them, as a model for change in the regulation of prostitution. The change in legislation in Sweden took place in 1999. “ They have invested in support services and targeted the demand, which has led to a massive decrease in trafficking,” said Horvath. “It is good to look to a model that has been put in place.”
However, representatives from local estates just want the problem to stop. They described the negative impact of prostitution in their neighbourhood. “Parents won’t allow their children to play on the estate because of what they might come across,” said Lily Islam from the Flower and Dean estate in Spitalfields. “When the police stop patrolling the area, the problem comes back again. We need a long-term solution.”
Others complained of living in fear. “You have to help the girl but you also need to think about the impact on us,” said one resident. “We have had prostitutes and punters in our back garden. You become a victim yourself and you are scared to go out.”
Chief Inspector Nigel Nottage insisted that the recent arrests were not related to the Olympics. He said that prostitution had been a problem in the area for a long time. “We didn’t start our work because of the Olympics,” said Nottage. “We have been listening to the local residents who have been telling us what their children see on the way to school in the morning. We have been working with our partners in the local authority and ‘Safe Exit’ over the last couple of years on this.”
‘Safe Exit’, a charity set up by Toynbee Hall in Tower Hamlets, uses a ‘diversion scheme’ to move sex workers out of the criminal justice system and away from prostitution. The charity works in partnership with the local police, the council and other women’s organisations to offer a range of support services, from counselling and substance abuse guidance to housing and legal advice. According to Nottage, four out of five of those people arrested, who cooperate with the ‘Safe Exit’ scheme, will see their case discontinued.
Rania Khan, councillor for Bromley-by-Bow, said that kerb-crawlers living in the community should be “named and shamed”.
“These women have been failed by our social services,” said Khan. “It is unacceptable that we still have women selling sex on the streets. Prostitution is the oldest form of oppression.”
For ‘Lisa’, a former sex worker and recovered drug addict, the criminalisation of women rather than men is unacceptable. “I am appalled at the way these women are treated”, she said at the meeting. “I thought it was illegal to kerb-crawl. What is an ASBO going to do? These women are being punished”.
By Leila Zerai