As I write, the day outside is gloomy and there is no sunshine on the River Tees that flows past the office window. Here in Stockton-on-Tees, a town in North East England, many people consider gloominess to be the norm. When a recent report tells you that seven of Stockton's wards are amongst the most deprived in the country, that unemployment is substantially higher and average earnings are markedly lower than the national averages, that life expectancy has barely improved since the 1930s, and that 22% of children are living in poverty, it's hard to see the light.
In the midst of these already shocking circumstances, is the statistic that fuels the fire of the work we do at A Way Out: there are estimated to be around 100 women sexually exploited and actively engaged in street-based survival sex work within Stockton.
And it's not a big town.
A Way Out exists to reach and engage with these women on the streets, and the many more we can make an educated guess are also working off the streets, where numbers are harder to estimate. Survival sex work is exactly that - women who have been exploited and feel they must do this in order to survive, in order to buy food or pay for housing, in order to fund dangerous addictions, in order to simply make it through the day.
I once heard it said that women involved in sex work have chosen it. To some extent perhaps they have, and our women are not among the hidden thousands who are trafficked or forced, although of course we are profoundly aware of this atrocity. But even if those we are working with have made this choice, surely we must ask: what on earth was the other option? Did they even have one?
I want to tell you about Mandy. I've changed her name, because sadly there are people she needs protecting from. Mandy is a victim of domestic violence.
Let's recognise that for a moment - Mandy is a victim, just like every single one of the women we work with. Victims of abuse. Victims of neglect. Victims of being exploited, mistreated, let down, unsupported and forgotten. It's estimated that at least 30% of sex workers were once in care, but potentially as many as 70%, and sadly, children don't enter the care system without good reason. The women we support are so very often these children now grown up.
Mandy was involved in sex work, and her first three children were removed from her care. When she came to us, Mandy was pregnant with her fourth child and, understandably given her earlier decisions, Social Services were preparing to remove the child at birth. But something was different this time. With the support of A Way Out, Mandy was able to leave the abusive relationship and turn her back on sex work, she was no longer drinking or using drugs, and she was entirely determined to keep her baby.
We know that children of sex workers are incredibly vulnerable and need protection - they deserve the love, care and stability that every child should have, and sadly, women involved in sex work may be unable to offer this so Social Services do need to step in. But for Mandy, and others we have worked with, this was a chance for change.
It was costly and it was hard, but Mandy chose to make real changes. We helped her to access treatment and therapy. She began to deal with past traumas and face up to issues that she had. She recognised her previous bad decisions, and she chose to do things differently. And when her baby girl was born, Mandy was allowed to keep her daughter with her under a Child Protection Plan, in which A Way Out was named as part of her support.
Now, many months later, both Mandy and her daughter are flourishing, and no longer need to be under the supervision of Social Services.
On the surface this is a simple story, yet it belies such a depth of feeling in this young woman. There is still the loss of her first three children, there is still the pain of her previous abuse, there is still the challenge of living with regret, sorrow and trauma - but Mandy is choosing commitment, hope, and love.
What's incredible is that this is the spirit we find again and again. Unfortunately, not every story leads to such a wonderful conclusion and so many are still ongoing, but whilst Stockton may be known for those statistics I opened with, it is also full of resilient people, who are determined to seek the light amidst the gloomy outlook.
A Way Out wants to be part of the support that ensures our women can make this choice. Rather than succumbing to negativity, concurring with stereotypical assumptions surrounding those in sex work, and agreeing with the generally accepted inevitability that change is impossible, we believe in possibility and potential. Our tagline is Love, Hope, Freedom and this is what we seek to offer and seek to build. We love our women, regardless of history or current circumstances. We hope in a brighter future for every single one. And we will continue to do all we can to see them achieve the freedom to live healthy, whole and safe lives.
A Way Out is shortlisted for the Centre for Social Justice Awards 2015, which recognise UK charities that display innovation and effectiveness in addressing the root causes of poverty, transforming lives and reversing social breakdown. The Huffington Post UK is the media partner for the awardsSuggest a correction