While the pandemic is far from over, there is a definite sense of spring optimism in the air. Our children are back at school again, the Covid infection rates are tumbling and even the daffodils are putting on a good display. But, if we have learned anything during this last year, it is to be grateful for the good that happens and not to take anything for granted.
We have also learned that a crisis of national proportions places disproportionate pressure on those who are already the most vulnerable. To be vulnerable means to be easily physically, emotionally, or mentally hurt, influenced, or attacked and, based on this definition, there are few people more vulnerable in our society than those who are involved in prostitution.
Across the UK, 105,000 individuals are believed to be involved in prostitution - 96 per cent are women, with an average age of 24.
All too often, the pathway into this life is associated with a combination of coercion, human trafficking, domestic violence, substance abuse and poverty. Many are effectively entrapped in a form of modern slavery with no prospect of escape without outside assistance.
However, for those living in Sussex, Surrey and London, there are grounds for hope. The charity Streetlight UK, which was established in West Sussex, works specifically with those working as prostitutes to provide them with one-to-one support, welfare advice, self-care kits and, for some, they are able to offer an exit away from prostitution.
During the pandemic year the charity has been particularly busy. Across Sussex alone it has had online contact with 2,807 women involved in prostitution and it has offered direct support to 213 of them.
Streetlight has developed a team of highly-trained volunteers who can work in partnership with the police and other agencies to ensure that those who are victims of trafficking or require welfare support can be rapidly helped. At every contact, the safety and well-being of the women they meet is the prime concern and it is not surprising to learn that, during the lockdown, the volunteers were deemed to be essential key workers and were able to continue their vital work.
As Jeana, one of the charity’s Women’s Support Workers in Sussex, said: “I feel honoured and proud to be part of an innovative, dynamic and dedicated team. Working together, we advocate for women to live free from sexual exploitation.”
However, the Covid crisis has made life even more difficult for those involved in prostitution. Streetlight has observed significant increases in depression and suicide, exposure to violence, financial and housing hardship and poor nutrition.
In response, the charity has doubled its provision of nighttime outreach and online support, increased its availability for daytime welfare advice, offered mobile phones so contact could be maintained and, for the first time, provided hot meals to those who cannot afford to feed themselves.
The route away from prostitution is not at all straightforward. For some it has become part of a way of life entangled with drug addiction and financial pressures and to find the path that will leave this all behind can require a great deal of courage and strength.
As Helena Croft, drector of Streetlight, has said: “Prostitution has often been called the oldest ‘profession’ – but it is not a career choice. No little girl dreams of growing up to do this.”
Thankfully, due to the work of Streetlight UK, many women involved in prostitution are now receiving support so that they can have a fresh start into lives where their bodies and their freedom is not up for sale.