Helping sex workers live safer – http://www.montrealgazette.com/life/Helping+workers+live+safer/2354147/story.html

Stella Alliance works to bring rape suspects to court as part of its anti-violence fight It’s all about “taking back respect” for Montreal’s estimated 20,000-plus sex workers. The way to accomplish that is by ensuring every one of them is empowered to exercise rights they too often have only on paper, Émilie Laliberté said yesterday. The former prostitute became the public face of the Stella sex-worker alliance five years ago. After her 2004 decision to become an activist in the community group, “I was tagged,” she said. “I’m out of the business now.” Stella was created in 1995 with a mission “to fight for better working and life conditions.” These crime-fighting sex workers recently proved instrumental in helping take two alleged serial rapists in the Montreal area to court. A preliminary hearing for Giovanni D’Amico of Notre Dame de Grâce began recently, with five sex workers pressing charges against him. “It started with one,” Laliberté said. “Then, the others started coming out. One by one. With our support.” Another accused, Marco Chevalier, is before a judge in St. Hyacinthe. Stella is supporting complaints against him from five sex workers, she said. Stella’s supporters demonstrated in front of the two courthouses on days when the alleged victims were on the witness stand – Dec. 7 in D’Amico’s case, and two days later for Chevalier’s preliminary hearing. But the only proper foundation for the future is to decriminalize Canada’s sex trade, Laliberté said last night. “Decriminalization would end the climate of impunity that renders sex workers ‘easy targets’ for attackers.” She had just marched with a group of more than 125 sex workers and supporters who braved bitter cold to mark the seventh International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. “Break the silence! Stop the violence! No bad women! Just bad laws!” These and similar slogans warmed the air – to a small degree, anyway – as the noisy throng left the Papineau métro station and walked to St. Laurent Blvd., the heart of the city’s traditional red-light district. A panel discussion on violence in the trade, and various techniques to fight it, followed. “Criminalization of our work robs us of the right to security,” said Laliberté, 28, who grew up in the Mile End district. She studied sexology at Université du Québec à Montréal. “I made my decision on my own,” at age 18, to become a high-priced prostitute. “I travelled to cities all over the U.S. and Canada. … I was never arrested.” What helped draw her to high-profile involvement in Stella, she said, was a visit to an emergency room. She was accompanying a topless dancer who had been brutally assaulted by a strip-club customer when she went out on a date with him and he attempted to rape her. “When the doctor realized she was a sex worker, you could just see the contempt in his face,” Laliberté said. More than 60 attacks on sex workers are reported across the city each year. The assaults are generally becoming more violent, she said. Since 1998, figures compiled by Stella indicate, 12 Montreal-area sex workers have been murdered – the latest Sonia Frappier, 30, of the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve district. Her body was found Aug. 10 in Laval. The march also served to emphasize a campaign of self-defence and health techniques promoted by Stella’s five outreach workers. The group also maintains a Bad Trick List for the Montreal region, which now has about 60 male names and descriptions . Decriminalization of sex for sale in New Zealand has fostered “access to safe workplaces, the right to organize at work and the possibility of having good working conditions,” Laliberté said. It has “allowed sex workers, particularly those in the street, to report violent crimes against them without the fear of being arrested or having their clients arrested,” she said. For more information about Stella: http://www.chezstella.org janr@thegazette.canwest.com

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