Prostitutes working on the edge of the city in East London have recently been subject to a concerted campaign of abuse from the police, the local press and vigilantes. Some of the women are as young as thirteen, many are care leavers and work to support drug habits. Police harassment of prostitutes is nothing new, and the women believe that the latest round of arrests were made in revenge for the arrests of local officers found using the services of local working girls.
However the activity of vigilantes in the area has become a very real danger to the women. Many have been hounded out of the more middle class traditional red light districts in North London and taken to working in the no-man's land where the city meets the slums of the East End. The area has a large Bangladeshi population and is home to the two main mosques that serve the local community. Community 'leaders' have been petitioning the police, councillors and the press in an attempt to 'clean up the area'. It is no coincidence that this is happening at the same time as the local council are trying to sell the area to business and tourists as a Bengali equivalent of Chinatown - Banglatown - a project that has met with a less than enthusiastic welcome from the local Asian community who do not relish the prospect of becoming a shallow tourist attraction.
The city is encroaching on the area at an alarming rate - Hoxton has been yuppified beyond recognition by artists and designers and Spitalflelds market is about to be sold to developers and turned into a Futures market.
The area is extremely impoverished and has been home to gangs of youths for a long time. it seems that the campaign against the working girls has provided an outlet for violence that could just have easily been directed against any other group single out as scapegoats. Women are being chased by gangs with baseball bats, beaten up, having bottles thrown at them and being hounded out of their homes while the local press is awash with articles about 'tarts touting their torrid trade.'
In contrast the city gents, police officers and councillors who use their services are being left alone. So are the pimps - who similarly are not averse to beating the women who feed them when they've failed to bring in enough money.
A local group is working with the women to try and combat some of the dangers they face. The group provide condoms, hot drinks and food one evening a week and a legal advice service. The work is not funded and is run by volunteers. The group seems to make a difference in that women can, at least, access help with housing, benefits, healthcare and legal representation. But legal representation is next to useless when women are too scared or cynical to report attacks and when the police are at best indifferent. However the work often goes beyond this; bundling women into cars to get them away from vigilantes, violent pimps or cops, providing shelter when women cannot go home for the night or even getting women out of London for their safety. Volunteers have been followed home, had their homes burgled and graffittied and been subject to attacks themselves. They have also attended local meetings to try and put forward the prostitutes' case.
Since the group's involvement the women have started talking about setting up a local union. There are also plans to set up a safe house - something that is desperately needed. Such a project, necessarily, would have to be independent of and secret from any state body such as social services-many of the women have fled social services 'care' and are hardly likely to want to return to it. It seems that women working as prostitutes on the streets will continue to be subject to high levels of violence as long as pimps control their business and 'soliciting' remains illegal. Where more powerful interests such as big business and yuppification are involved, the risks are even higher as women become scapegoats in lo-cal "clean up campaigns". The ultimate question has to be - cleaning up the streets for who?