The Fight Against Gender-Based Violence Includes Supporting the Dignity of Sex Workers

Background media: A collage that features a central image of white, red, coral, and purple flowers partially framing a female black and white head. To the right, two sentences read, "sex workers deserve safe spaces" and "sex workers' rights are human rights."
Collage: Elena Sosa Lerín/Oxfam

Laurel Cassels is the s.h.a.r.e. program coordinator. 

s.h.a.r.e. (Sex-workers Have Access to Resources Equitably) received financial support from the Her Future, Her Choice project in 2022. Funded by Global Affairs Canada, it aims to improve sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) in Canada, Ethiopia, Malawi, Mozambique, and Zambia. In Canada, the project provides financial assistance to youth-led and women's rights organizations to carry out public engagement activities to advance SRHR across the country. 

What's at stake when a Winnipeg program that goes beyond conventional approaches to safeguard the dignity, safety, and well-being of sex workers is in danger of shutting down?

We Had an Idea

"I need a place where I can be with people like me, people who have experienced stigma without support."

The Sex Workers of Winnipeg Action Coalition (SWWAC) rallied in the winter of 2021 to secure funding for an initiative that would be community-informed and cater to current and former sex workers. We envisioned a program housed in a central location and staffed entirely by individuals with lived experience. Previously, we launched the first five editions of Sex Workers Claiming Agency, Resilience and Safety (S.C.A.R.S.), a zine "conceived, composed, compiled and constructed" by Winnipeg sex workers "and the folks who love them." We were excited to produce more editions and hoped to have the new drop-in center up and running soon enough to maintain the small community we had built.

By the spring of 2022, we achieved our goal.

We received two grants from a couple of different organizations to support basic program expenses. One was from Oxfam Canada, whose funding made the publication of two additional S.C.A.R.S. issues possible. It also allowed us to provide warm winter clothing to our participants and have bus tokens, blankets, and first aid supplies readily available.

We named the program "Sex-workers Have Access to Resources Equitably" (s.h.a.r.e.) to reflect our goal of reducing the barriers faced by community members. We rented a fully equipped facility and opened our doors on July 8, 2022. Since then, we have been open every Friday evening and Sunday afternoon.

Background media: Mixed media collage.
S.C.A.R.S. zine cover courtesy of Laurel Cassels.

We Made It a Reality

"At s.h.a.r.e., I was given the opportunity to use my own voice for good."

s.h.a.r.e. is led by its participants instead of a steering committee of programmers and professionals. However, having a few members to guide program activities frequently proved inconvenient for people who work irregular hours, live a transient life, or struggle to keep their most important appointments. Instead, we survey participants every quarter, asking our most frequent guests for feedback on how things are going. To incentivize participation, we split the money initially allocated for steering committee meetings into honoraria for all those who complete the surveys. This gives the participants a sense of ownership, knowing their suggestions shape s.h.a.r.e.

In each survey, we make it clear to respondents that we're willing to consider any suggestions they might have as long as they aren't hindered by financial, physical, ethical, or legal constraints. This practice has helped us come up with different initiatives such as "Clothing s.h.a.r.e." We collect donated garments over some time and then organize a shopping-style experience where everything is free. This idea has been a huge success compared to giving out donations as they trickle in. By doing this, we accumulate various styles and sizes that cater to everyone, not just those who can fit into the sizes of one particular donor.

Due to social stigma, many participants hesitate to seek medical attention until their concerns become emergencies. To address this situation, we partnered with Mino Pimatisiwin – Sexual Healing Lodge, a project of Ka Ni Kanichihk, an Indigenous-led organization, to have a nurse visit our facility on the last Friday of every month. Since July of this year, she's been available to answer questions, attend to minor wounds and injection site concerns, and provide rapid testing for sexually transmitted and blood-borne infections (STBBIs), pregnancy, and flu vaccines.

Background media: mixed media collage. featuring a stone heart
S.C.A.R.S. zine back cover courtesy of Laurel Cassels.

The People Who Make s.h.a.r.e.

"Everyone here is SO HONEST, and when they trust me, I want to trust them, too."

In our first year of operation, our community experienced significant growth. We initially planned to serve around 50 guests. But in a year, we've successfully assisted over 360 people. On average, we have 15 to 25 visits each time we open our doors.

Many hear the term gender-based violence and think almost exclusively about rape and domestic abuse. But at s.h.a.r.e., we've learned about insidious violence that permeates nearly every aspect of some participants' lives. This violence, rooted in stigma, is not confined to systems. It trickles down to everyday challenges faced by our community members. It threatens their safety in housing, employment, child-rearing, access to all supports and services, and regular social interactions.

In our latest survey, we're asking participants what they think about s.h.a.r.e.'s potential closure due to insufficient funding and its impact on their lives. A transgender community member shared her thoughts verbally and permitted me to share them:

I don't know how much longer I will be around. I mean it, and I'm not asking for pity or even action on your part. I just want you to promise me one thing: When people cry and say 'Oh, no, what could we have done? How could we have prevented this from happening?' Tell them! Tell them I heard it, every time they called me a guy in a dress, every time they misgendered me behind my back and even to my face. Tell them I knew why they excluded me so often. Tell them that I felt it, each time they swore their support for me and then ignored my calls when I needed to talk. I'm not stupid… please tell them that.

This participant also shared she attends s.h.a.r.e. because it's the only program for women where, as a transgender person, she feels welcome and safe because she knows the space doesn't tolerate transphobia. She's not alone in this sentiment, as around 10 per cent of our regular participants are transgender, gender non-conforming, or non-binary, and several of them have expressed similar feelings to varying degrees. At s.h.a.r.e., we value and respect all women. We've had one program assistant and two Friday night cooks who are trans women.

We're committed to addressing all forms of gender-based violence and modelling an equitable approach for anyone who's watching.

Background media: mixed media collage
S.C.A.R.S. zine cover courtesy of Laurel Cassels.

The Prospect of Losing s.h.a.r.e.

"People come because of the special way you meet us here. We can't afford to lose this."

Since the end of our first year, s.h.a.r.e. has been limping along. We're grateful for the small grants and private donations we've received, mostly from our community members and allies, but they haven't been enough to sustain us. We have sought support from every foundation, level of government and any other source we can identify. Unfortunately, in November, we were unable to pay our rent. Currently, staff is working without compensation.

We're not giving up.

Everyone involved in this initiative deserves better. The s.h.a.r.e. staff deserve support and remuneration. Participants also deserve access to services that provide them comfort and dignity. We'll continue to persevere until we've exhausted all possible options. We can't afford to lose such an important community space where we offer critical services, dignity, and safety. A space that supports women to claim their resilience.


What You Can Do
  • Amplify these voices: Share this blog post with your friends and network on social media, newsletter, or by email.
  • Follow s.h.a.r.e. on Instagram to learn more about their activities.
  • Donate to support their work through the Manitoba Harm Reduction Network.

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