Red Umbrella Day highlights safety of sex workers

When Victorians see fellow citizens carrying red umbrellas in remembrance of sex workers around the world through downtown on Tuesday, they should think of the safety of their own streets as well, event organizers say.

“The reality is sex workers are 60 to 100 times more likely to be assaulted than anyone else,” said Marion Little, executive director of PEERS.

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The non-profit group provides advocacy and outreach for Victoria sex workers and is helping to organize Red Umbrella Day on Tuesday, the international day to end violence against sex workers.

Supporters will carry red umbrellas from the legislature grounds at 6 p.m. to AIDS Vancouver Island at 715 Johnson St., where a vigil, speeches and burlesque performance will be held.

Red Umbrella Day began in 2003 as a response to the Green River Killer, who murdered 70 women in Washington state. It has become an international symbol of human rights for sex workers.

“There are basic human, workplace rights that sex workers don’t have,” Little said.

She keeps the names of sex workers she knows who have died, posting six on her wall in the past two years. Not all died violently, but a lack of services, stigma and illness contributed.

PEERS operates outreach programs for sex workers and, until they recently lost funding, offered an employment and weekday drop-in.

The drop-in centre recently reopened one afternoon a week. Even with reduced services, the centre is a crucial resource for sex workers who can report and keep tabs on violent and dangerous incidents against them through the bad date sheet, Little said.

In the past few months, a sex worker was threatened by a man who took her to an empty parking lot on Hillside Avenue, an escort was harassed by text messages, and a sex worker picked up at Rock Bay Landing was taken to Prior Lake, kicked out of a vehicle and threatened with a golf club.

Police work through PEERS to warn sex workers of offenders, like the man who sexually assaulted a woman who happened to be walking near “the stroll” in Rock Bay at 5 a.m. Sept. 4.

“We focus more on developing a rapport to build trust,” said Victoria Police Sgt. Todd Wellman, who spent five years with the special victims unit before moving to investigative services this month.

He said the cuts to PEERS have affected the unit’s ability to reach out to at-risk sex workers, especially those on the streets.

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