Anne Sebba reports on a degree course that has prostitutes turning student instead of turning tricks
Two nights a week, three women drive a little Suzuki van around the poorest streets of Spitalfields in London's East End, stopping at well-known corners to hand out hot drinks, leaflets and condoms. The conversations with the prostitutes they have come to see used to revolve around identifying "dodgy punters", especially older men cruising until they find a girl "who'll do it for a tenner".
But these days you are just as likely to find a cluster of women in the front seat of the van asking advice on an essay, checking facts with one of the project workers or discussing how to approach the next module.
This dramatic, albeit small-scale, change has come about thanks to staff at the Maze Marigold Project in Tower Hamlets, one of London's most deprived boroughs.
Two of them, Rio Vella and Sandra Shanks, once mature students themselves, began by looking into drug abuse in the area but found they could not separate it from the life endured by many of the women selling sex to fund their drug habits. They have recently persuaded a group of prostitutes to give up their well-paid nightly work for the as yet unremunerative grind of daily study. Five have embarked on a higher education certificate course in interpersonal skills for volunteers, a unique qualification awarded by the University of Wales at Lampeter via a distance-learning package.
After this, they intend to study for a BA degree in voluntary sector studies, a course so new that the final year is still being designed. No academic qualifications are required for entry to the certificate course but students must have six months' experience in voluntary work.
"Initially, we went out on the streets as part of a research project just handing out condoms and advice about safer drug use, but we really weren't that skilled ourselves. Sometimes we approached women who weren't sex workers at all," Vella recalls. "But we felt if we packed up after a month we'd be guilty of abusing the women who did need us. We wanted to continue but had no funding."
At this point they joined forces with Sister Lynda Dearlove, a Sister of Mercy, working with the housing charity Providence Row, which helps homeless single women. Vella, Shanks and Dearlove, now funded jointly by the YWCA and Providence Row, have slowly built friendships with about 30 women in the area, as I witnessed when I met them in their cramped Bethnal Green office. Earlier this year, the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund awarded the YWCA a grant of Pounds 20,000 towards helping Maze Marigold staff run their advice services.
"Of course, we don't go out deliberately to get women back to college," Shanks says. "But I think they look at us and think, 'If they've done it - I went back to college at 35 - I can too.'" Vella, mother of five grown children, explains: "At first, some of the women do not want to come near us, they think we're do-gooders. But I'm dedicated to encouraging women, especially working-class women, to do something with their lives. I hated school and left at 13. Lots of them did the same. It's all about encouraging them, giving them confidence. You have got to know that you have skills. The average housewife has budgeting skills, craft skills, imagination and time-keeping skills. She just doesn't know it."
Dearlove takes up the story: "Because of my work with volunteers, I had searched for an appropriate course for people failed by the education system, to help them back into getting some sort of qualification."
She was only too aware of the vicious circle these women were in: with no job experience, they could get no reference, and any talk of choice was illusory. Then she met former social worker Carolyn Inglis, now director of the Centre for Educational Development at the University of Wales at Lampeter, who had designed a 36-week course intended to break this cycle. In 1998, the course was awarded a Queen's Anniversary Prize for higher education. Since it started in 1997, it has attracted more than 1,000 people, mostly volunteers needing a professional qualification.
Inglis believes the five East Enders are the only former prostitutes to have registered.
Inglis, whose MPhil was on female prostitution, says sex industry workers face great competition in their business, and previous experience has made them wary of working in groups. "But working in isolation is also difficult. They need constant help to remain motivated. This sort of course demands tremendous dedication and we're getting it."
TRADING AN OLD PROFESSION FOR A NEW START
Sara, a 42-year-old former prostitute, left school at 16 and began working on the streets. "I didn't see myself as ever doing anything else.But you worry as you get older, who would want to employ you? Rio and Sandra built me up to believe I could do something else."
Sara, who has three children aged 19, 15 and four, enrolled first for an adult foundation course at Islington. She gave up work immediately - "you have to make a clean break" - and now lives on benefit. The course was free, apart from a Pounds 7 examination fee.
"The most difficult thing was mixing with people who weren't from my group. Sometimes I found it hard if I had to write anything about my life and say what I'd done, but having children meant I built my story around them. I could never talk about what I really did."
Sara is now halfway through the certificate course's third module, but she suffered a setback after passing her second module with 52 per cent. She had expected a higher grade because she had passed her first with 59 per cent. Only the Maze Marigold safety net restored her motivation. "If I'd met Rio and Sandra years ago, I'd have given up prostitution long before. It wasn't a case of not wanting a proper job - I didn't think I was capable of doing anything else."
"I want to do outreach work like Rio and Sandra because it would be good to give something back," says Lisa, a striking -year-old who was one of the most difficult women for the Maze Marigold staff to get to know.
Rio Vella recalls: "She put up all sorts of barriers before she'd talk to us. But last year on her birthday she cried when we gave her a bunch of flowers and Father Brian Ralph, the parish priest who chairs the project, gave her a thesaurus."
Lisa, who ran away from an unhappy home when she was 14, says: "It was something I'd always wanted. The flowers made me feel like a real woman for the first time in my life."
For several years Lisa worked for a pimp, but she has now given up sex work and is determined to train to go back on the streets to help others like her.
She has almost completed her one-year access course, so has several years of study ahead. "But I will do the degree," she says.
Like Sara, the most difficult part was inventing an identity so that she did not have to admit to her previous work. "I just said I was here to turn a negative experience into a positive one and everyone started clapping."