20/07/2016 12:22 BST | Updated 21/07/2017 06:12 BST

Prostitution: Changing the Law Is Vital But Not Enough

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An interim report on prostitution by the Home Affairs Select Committee this month urgently recommends that the Government change the law to decriminalize prostitution. It's a humane recommendation, and a change which can't come soon enough. But it's just the first step towards stamping out a practice which causes untold hurt to the hundreds of thousands of women involved in it. And unless we take the next steps, decriminalisation alone will offer little protection to these women.

Women involved in prostitution are regularly the victims of very serious and violent crimes, often at the hands of men who buy sex. The statistics are shocking: women in prostitution are 18 times more likely to be murdered than the general female population and the majority (74%) of women involved in prostitution have experienced violence from 'customers', with more than half having been raped or sexually assaulted.

At the moment, women are often reluctant to report such violence for fear they themselves will be criminalised. Women involved in prostitution avoid the police, and work in areas they were less likely to be discovered or seen by law enforcement. Sadly, this makes them even more vulnerable to violence, either from men who buy sex or from other men in their lives who may be coercing them into prostitution.

This fear of criminalisation can also make it harder for women to access help, either to exit prostitution or with their other needs, for example around mental health; addiction; or homelessness, for fear they might be reported. Previous criminalisation can also make it impossible for women to exit; a criminal record can make it very difficult for women to get or keep a job or housing.

So the proposed change in the law is welcome, but it's not enough. The needs of women involved in prostitution are multiple and complex, and specialist support is essential. Most of these women have been victims of sexual and/or domestic violence, usually from a young age, and most have addiction, mental health and other needs. They are among the most vulnerable people in our society, and many will have become involved in prostitution directly through child sexual exploitation.

It's essential that strategies and procedures make the links between women's past experiences and trauma, her involvement in prostitution, and the whole range of her support needs. Professionals need to recognise that exploited girls are at risk of later involvement in prostitution, and that many women in prostitution started out as exploited girls.

There are a number of excellent services supporting women with complex needs, including those which work specifically with women in prostitution, but most struggle for funding. These services can be very successful at helping women stay safe or exit prostitution, but only so far as their funding is secure. Currently, the provision and quality of services varies from area to area.

To prevent this variation, every local area should have a plan on how to tackle prostitution, which recognises the links to poverty, mental health, housing, and other issues. Drug addiction is a particular problem for women involved in prostitution, so there is also a real need for trauma and gender-informed substance misuse services which understand the complexity of women's lives, prioritise their safety and recognise their particular support needs. Other services, like GPs and the police, which come into contact with women involved in prostitution should be gender and trauma aware. Professionals need to understand the backgrounds of women in prostitution, and be linked in with wider networks for referral and support.

The Committee makes a number of other good recommendations to support women involved in prostitution, and the Government should respond to them. But women involved in prostitution cannot wait for support until after a final report is published. The Government must take urgent action now to ensure women involved in prostitution have the support they need. Otherwise, more women will lose their lives or experience even more awful and unnecessary suffering.