Recently I’ve been surprising people, in fact shocking quite a few.   And strangely this has centred on an issue of human rights, or social justice if you prefer.

In the 21st century?

For many years I’ve had the privilege of supporting a woman who was raped as a child, assaulted in local authority care, groomed for prostitution.  Coerced into street sex work for nearly 10 years, desperate and  in her early 20s, she put her children into care, despite her own experiences as a vulnerable teenager.

That was twenty years ago.  Since then she has suffered depression, PSTD, chronic ill health, an inability to make a loving adult relationship and particularly, poverty.   Perpetually living on benefits brings constant anxiety, reduced aspirations and circumstances, a lack of spontaneity or joy.

So why not get a job?

Or perhaps volunteer?  Because for her it’s not straightforward and that’s the shocking bit.

Penalising the victim

In our sector, we are all familiar with DBSchecks.  With these, repeat convictions or for jobs involving contact with vulnerable people or children, convictions have to be revealed, however ancient.  Many street prostitutes  have fifty plus convictions, acquired years previously. Additionally, being convicted of a sex crime often leads being regarded as sex offenders.  Nothing could be further from reality.  Their catalogue of offences actually demonstrates their years of abuse,

So this is why I found myself in the Royal Courts of Justice recently. Here three brave women, on behalf of many others, argued that they should not continue to be penalised for street prostitution offences, often committed years ago.  For them, employment as a care worker is impossible, as is going on a school trip with your son or volunteering with the Brownies.

What happened next?

I learnt a lot that morning.  How process can be used to negate the application of common sense and logic, or even justice; the guts required to fight publicly on issues of morality; how intimidating the complexity of a court hearing can be.

In the event, judgement was reserved, with the judges seeking time to reflect.  Six key arguments had been put.  The claimants are unlikely to win them all, but maybe some and this could produce change.  What is certain is that these women are determined,they will never give up. Whether or not they realise it, their human rights are at stake.

Why does this matter?

Many agencies in York support survivors like these, providing invaluable services, accommodation, support.  Yet this “unintended consequence” is largely unknown and the needsthat result are enormous and life long.  With a change in the administration of the law, or the law itself, some of these could be reduced, as well as allowing these women the lives they deserve.

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