Scotland's justice system can feel like it has turned its back on one group of women who experience abuse – Katy Mathieson

We all have the right to live our lives free from abuse and the fear of violence.

Women involved in selling or exchanging sex are more vulnerable to encountering assault and violence (Picture: Carl de Souza/AFP via Getty Images)
Women involved in selling or exchanging sex are more vulnerable to encountering assault and violence (Picture: Carl de Souza/AFP via Getty Images)

Yet, for many people in Scotland these rights are not upheld, and abuse and violence, or the threat of these, are common experiences which disproportionately affect women.

There is a common misconception that only certain women can be legitimate victims of abuse. This is based on outdated stereotypes of women’s sexuality and misguided assumptions about how people react to abusive situations.

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Abuse can happen to any woman in any context, and the evidence shows that women involved in selling or exchanging sex are more vulnerable to encountering assault and violence, all of this in addition to the abuse they may face in other areas of their lives, such as their homes and communities.

At the same time, we know that huge barriers remain for women seeking justice or support in the aftermath of the abuse – including lack of knowledge of their rights when reporting the abuse, the complexity that comes with proving that the abuse happened, and the feeling that they might not be believed – and these issues are magnified for women who sell or exchange sex, making it incredibly difficult to come forward.

Some of these barriers may stem from the stigma and vilification that women have historically encountered and still do to this today.

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The fear of being criminalised, paired with previous negative experiences with the justice system can make justice feel out of reach. And when women are also affected by hostile immigration rules and discrimination based on their identity, it can put them completely off from seeking the support and legal assistance they need and deserve. This is an injustice that we should not tolerate in a Scotland that seeks to be progressive.

Every survivor deserves to be believed and supported, regardless of the circumstances.

At the Scottish Women’s Rights Centre, our daily work with survivors of abuse has shown us just how crucial women’s need for legal support and advocacy is. Every day we hear from women who are in situations of domestic abuse, stalking, sexual violence, sexual harassment or a combination of this and other forms of abuse.

Their questions can range from how to report abuse to the police and how to get legal protections against a perpetrator to concerns about keeping the custody of children and accessing emotional and practical support.

Not only that, but we see how the effects of the abuse can have a significant impact in other areas of survivors’ lives, such as their housing situation, finances, child custody, immigration status, among many others. These too are justice issues that require our attention.

We are very aware that the justice system and associated processes are inaccessible and difficult to navigate and our work is to make sure women feel informed and supported to decide how to exercise the rights that we all have.

We know that justice is not an easy journey for any survivor. Coming forward requires a lot of consideration and support, and those who do feel able to speak often encounter victim-blaming and further traumatisation along the way.

This is precisely why it is essential that every woman who experiences abuse has the option to be supported through this process and empowered to understand and use her rights.

Women who sell or exchange sex have as much need for legal support as anyone else. However, it is clear that this support must recognise the legitimate fears and the concerns they may have about engaging with a justice system that can feel like it has turned its back on them.

That is why this week our centre launched Rise @ SWRC, a short pilot project specifically for women involved in selling or exchanging sex who have been affected by abuse and violence. The name of this project stands for Rights, Information, Support and Engagement, which are the four pillars that will guide our work with women.

The project is being funded by the Scottish Government as part of a package aimed at increasing specialist support for women involved in selling or exchanging sex. We are one of three organisations which have received such funding.

While our centre is and has always been open to any woman affected by abuse in Scotland, Rise @ SWRC exists in recognition that there are specific barriers that prevent women who sell or exchange sex from accessing the full range of support and legal options available to them.

Central to this work will be the voices of women with lived experience, who are the experts of their own situation. For this reason, we will work collaboratively with women and organisations as we develop this project, in order to better understand the issues faced when seeking justice, and how these might be addressed.

We will identify areas of legal need in consultation with women and organisations, and provide monthly information sessions on the rights that women have in those situations; some themes could include housing, immigration, money, to name just a few examples.

The sessions will be available online and women and workers will be able to access them anonymously. The project will also offer legal advice surgeries, initially on a fortnightly basis, to ensure that women are able to access tailored advice in relation to their own circumstances.

In Scotland there are many organisations which have advocated for the rights of women who sell or exchange sex who have also been vocal about the need for specialist legal support.

We aim to complement their efforts and work together to support women in a judgement-free and confidential way, ultimately ensuring that women feel supported to make informed decisions about how best to move forward from their experience of abuse.

To find out more about Rise @ SWRC project and the services it offers, visit www.womensrights.scot/rise

Katy Mathieson is co-ordinator at the Scottish Women’s Rights Centre

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