St. John's, N.L. — Heather Jarvis said it’s time the public recognizes that sex workers are people, too, who deserve to live safely in our communities.
“We have to stop making sex work a problem here and start recognizing that the wider problem here is violence against women …,” said Jarvis, program co-ordinator of the Safe Harbour Outreach Project (SHOP), an organization that advocates for sex workers’ human rights.
“We expect that the fault and the blame be put where it belongs — on people who target and violate the safety and the rights of women across our province.”
Jarvis spoke to The Telegram Wednesday, four days after the murder of Victoria Head in St. John’s on Nov. 11.
The 36-year-old’s body was found by a member of the public in the area of O’Brien Farm on Oxen Pond Road. Police believe Head may have been involved in the sex trade industry, which investigators say could be connected to her murder.
While Jarvis wouldn’t speak about Head specifically, she said she certainly didn’t deserve to die.
“She did nothing to bring this on herself… We’re at a bit of a loss for words. We’re incredibly sad to hear about another incredible woman who has been murdered and lost in our province.
“Many people are grieving. … We know that she was loved by so many. ... Our thoughts and our condolences go out to her family and friends.”
She said of the 200 women SHOP has connected with, many face similar challenges.
“We know stigma is one of the biggest impacts that people who engaged in sex workers face.
“Sadly, one of the things we all know too well is that stigma does kill.”
Head is the third woman to have been murdered in this province in six months. Cortney Lake, 24, of Mount Pearl, (June 7) and Ryanna Grywacheski, 18, of Marystown (Sept. 16) were the others.
Jarvis said many women live at the intersections of poverty and mental health, grappling with untreated addictions, homelessness and racism.
She said sex workers are made more vulnerable when they live in an environment “that says they don’t get to matter as much and this is the outcome we see for them.”
“Because the stigma is so strong around people who engage in sex work, they can’t tell people in their lives where they go or what they do make a living and make income,” Jarvis said.
“They’re often isolated, they often live in fear, worried about the consequences of, what if their landlord finds out? What kind of reaction will their doctor have? Do they even have access to health care? Are they being highly targeted by law enforcement?”
Jarvis said this province has “staggering” rates of violence against women and girls.
Of the 217,900 women over the age of 15 living in Newfoundland and Labrador, approximately 108,950 — one in two — will experience at least one incident of sexual or physical violence throughout their lifetime. Only 10 per cent (10,895) of these women will report this victimization to police.
“Now is the time for us to really be kind to each other,” Jarvis said.
“We know, especially from SHOP’s perspective, that sex workers are parts of our everyday community. They are a part of our neighbourhood. They are residents in our city. They are valuable participants and we want them to know that we see them and we know that they’re here and we’re here for them.”
In a news release issued Wednesday, Jenny Wright, executive director of the St. John’s Status of Women council, said “Violence against women and girls in our province is at a crisis level. We need the political will at all levels of government now to come to the table to address what is clearly a human rights issue.”
Wright took exception to the RNC news release Tuesday publicizing Head’s murder. It stated that there was no threat to the public, but cautioned those involved in the sex trade to be extra vigilant.
Wright tweeted, “Sex workers are members of our community, they are a part of the general public, this separation of them from the ‘general public’ perpetuates stigma and harm. #stigmakills”
In a news conference at RNC headquarters Wednesday afternoon to update reporters on the investigation, Const. Geoff Higdon said it was important to disclose the fact that Head was connected to the sex trade to warn others in the same line of work to be extra vigilant.
"First and foremost, Victoria Head is a member of our community, she was a mother... a daughter ... a friend," Higdon said.
"However, knowing more information about the type of work she may have been in and feeling it might be connected with her murder, I think that's an important thing to get out to the public.”
Later in the day, Higdon elaborated, pointing out that the RNC doesn’t separate sex workers from the general public.
“Public safety is paramount,” he said.
Since it’s still an active investigation, Higdon said he couldn’t give details about how Head died, but said she was last seen in the early hours of Saturday in the area of Queens Road. He said people in that area should be extra cautious.
He said there are no suspects yet, but investigators are continuing to gather evidence and conduct interviews.
“The RNC has deployed significant resources into this investigation and identifying the persons or persons responsible is a top priority.”
Anyone who has any information is asked to contact the RNC’s major crimes tip line at 729-8800. Information can also be provided anonymously on the NL Crime Stoppers Website at www.nlcrimestoppers.com.