YWCA Hamilton: Voices

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Vancouver’s Missing Women


Photo of Sarah de Vries via

Last fall I was fortunate enough to hear Maggie de Vries speak at an event put on by Wesley Urban Ministriesin Hamilton. de Vries is the sister of Sarah de Vries, a woman whose remains were found on Robert Pickton’s now infamous pig farm. Listening to de Vries was interesting for many reasons. Of course, she had a first hand experience of losing a loved one- whereas the rest of us had heard about the awful crimes of Robert Pickton on the news, de Vries lived this reality. More than that, what I took from her presentation was a lesson in assumptions and language.

de Vriesspoke of her personal pain and anger of “losing” her sister to drug addiction and the sex trade. She spoke of her judgment towards her sister’s lifestyle. How she feared for her safety when she would visit her, how she discounted that any goodness coming from Vancouver’s lower east side.

After her sister was killed de Vries was given Sarah’s journals- which were her sister’s art and long time modeof expression. de Vries spoke of how she felt “allowed” to read and share her sister’s work because she had been so open with it herself.

What made this particular talk  so striking was that de Vries showed us, her audience, WHO her sister was, even after her death. The humanity and life that was Sarah de Vrieswas not dismissed by the fact that she was a drug addict, or a sex trade worker. She was first and foremost loved.

de Vries talked about how she was proud of her sister and how if she could go back in time- she would have judged less and loved more. The irony of retrospect is that it is often too late to practice the things we have learned from a given situation- but the beauty is that this lesson carries over to a million and one different circumstances. Maggie cannot bring her sister back so she can love her freely despite her addiction and life choices, but we have the opportunity to love those around us despite their inadequacies. We still have that chance.

Maggie de Vriesalso said that language can perpetuate or condone violence. Sex work has always existed and will probably always continue to exist. Often those in the sex trade, especially low track, have come to it because of an addiction that must constantly be pacified. Others however, may chose sex work because they are able to make more money, feed their children, or put themselves through school.

There is a common phrase that is often used to describe the transaction between a sex trade worker and his or her client: “selling your body.” It is this conception that one can “sell their body” that silently excuses violence against sex trade workers. de Vries made the argument that no one can ever sell their body. It is inherently owned- nothing we do can sell our own bodies.

Using this language, innocent or as common as it may seem, appears to give ownership to the client “purchasing” the body. Take for example a masseuse. When a client gets a massage they make a transaction with the masseuse, for a set number of minutes that masseuse will use their hands to rub the clients back. Yet we do not think that this masseuse has “sold” his or her body. When someone receives a massage and buys the service, they are not allowed to do whatever they want to the hands of the masseuse- they cannot break his or her fingers. There is a contract- services and fees are exchanged and both people go on with their day. Yet the stigma of sex and sex work in particular, has us believe that when a sex worker makes a contract with a client, a sexual act for a set payment, they have somehow signed over control of their body to this client. This conception of “selling one’s body” is so problematic because it means that the sex worker can set no boundaries, has no rights, and thus can be violated or abused in any way that the client sees fit.

After listening to de Vries, I would suggest that most women (and probably most men) who sell sex have been beaten or raped numerous times. We need to rethink our use of language around sex work. Yet this will still only be a first step in combating the violence that happens to so many on our Canadian streets. As I mentioned above, many but not all sex trade workers have drug addictions. In light of this,  it seems that many sex trade workers are some of the most marginalized in our society before they began to sell sex. Whether from abuse, poverty, social exclusion, addiction- marginalization and oppression occurs.

 The problem is compounded when one enters the sex trade because further ostracization occurs. Think about it- selling sex is “yucky”- and normal “good” people do not want to see it on our streets. de Vriestalked about how originally many sex workers in Vancouver worked on streets that were more residential, with more people to see them and to notice if anything went wrong. However, “good, upstanding” citizens did not want to see sex workers on “their” streets, so the police became more forceful in removing them from the areas- not only for selling sex, but for simply being there. So, naturally, the sex trade was further pushed to the margins, into the industrial, run down, virtually empty east end, making it easier for predators like Robert Pickton to simply whisk women away.

What I learned more than anything was that a person can never be boiled down into a single category. The women that Robert Pickton killed were not only sex workers- they were sisters, mothers, lovers, friends, aunts, readers, cooks. They, like all of us, deserved to live without the fear of violence, whether they chose to sell sex or not. We cannot and should not create these small boxes for those we love to live in. Doing this can lead to dualistic thinking where one person is “saviour” and the other is “failure”. de Vries noted that when she went to visit her sister in the slum house she lived in she always felt weighed down by her feeling of being a “failed saviour” and she imagines now that her sister felt equally crippled by her feeling of simply being a failure. We need to learn to love people as they are and give ourselves the freedom to love others without questioning how that person’s choices or actions make us look.  

Lastly and perhaps most importantly I have learned that nothing, not even through selling sex can you “sell your body”- because it is irreconcilably your own. Violence is never, ever warranted, regardless of the transactions we participate in.

For more,  Shameless Blog put up a great piece about Pamela Masik, a Vancouver artist who is creating a portrait series titled “Forgotten” depiciting the missing women from Vancouver.

See also, the Globe and Mail’s video about Pamela’s work.


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Coin Jar

Feminist Finance is a great blog for women looking for solid financial tips, tricks and info.

One great post posits, like many other financial experts, that each of us should have enough savings to cover living expenses for three to six months. However, in today’s economy, with heightened job insecurity and the rising cost of living, this seems like an enormous challenge.

Hamilton has been especially hard hit during this recession and many women their families have seen their incomes dramatically decreased, if not totally disappeared.

The blog’s author notes that saving three to six months of living expenses might be daunting, so she shares a tip that she suggests might “change your life” …in her own words:

Your first goal should be to get $500 into a savings account. Liz Pulliam Weston (who might be my favorite money writer, BTW) reports on a recent study done by Stephen Brobeck for the Consumer Federation of America. Brobeck focused on low-income households (earning less than $25,000/year) and moderate income households (earning less than $50,000/year) households and found that for each category, household that had at least $500 in savings had measurably better financial, psychological, and physical health outcomes.

 Some ideas for where you could find $500 to put into savings:
– a tax refund
– a gift
– a part-time job
– a raise (if they don’t offer, ask for it!)
– selling unused items on ebay, a used book store, or a consignment store
– save all your change, or all your loonies and toonies
– find cheaper car insurance/phone plan/renters insurance/internet and pocket the difference
– cash in aluminum cans for the deposit
– a rebate or credit card reward check
– get a roommate 
– do surveys online through mysurvey.com or pinecone
– bike or walk more, drive or bus less

These are all great tips and with some discipline and cost cutting, most women will eventually be able to save $500. Paying yourself first is a great way to cut back on money stress and can help create a cushion in these tough economic times. If Brobeck’s study is correct, saving $500 can lead to improved psychological and physical health…and that is priceless.

image via.

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The Girl Project

stumbled across this amazing project and was inspired- I had to share!

Check out The Girl Project —

In their own words,

The Girl Project is a national collection of photographs taken by teenage girls. The photographs represent teenage girlhood and life as seen through the eyes of young women in America. The strongest images will be edited into a book and a traveling exhibition on female adolescence….

Participation in The Girl Project is FREE. All we need from you is your time and creativity. Your photographs tell the story. Shoot what and who you want. Shoot close-up or from far away. Use the film to photograph 1 or 36 subjects. Take pictures of people, things or landscapes. Take self portraits. Use the camera to express your feelings and thoughts – happy, sad, angry or indifferent. Be thoughtful or careless, formal or informal, traditional or experimental, literal or symbolic. Photography is a visual way to communicate your ideas and opinions to the world.

This is an American project, which is unlucky for Canadian girls. However, the notion behind the project is that girl’s voices matter. It tells us that what girls see and experience matter. And, perhaps most importantly, The Girl Project is an outlet for girls to be creative and imaginative, to be seen and heard.

Take a gander at Photovoice an extremely cool project out of our very own Hamilton.  Here is a snippet from the “about” page:

Photovoice Hamilton is designed to give people a chance to share their views, ideas, and experiences. In particular, issues of poverty and housing are being targeted. Project photographers call themselves “marginalized”, which means they might be unemployed, homeless, living in substandard housing, living with illness, or with a disability. In other words, facing any kind of hardship.


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Your Opinion Matters!

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“Eye Tracking” Poster

Holy technology Batman!


Amnesting International has released a new poster campaign that responds to people looking at it!

The message is ” It happens when nobody is watching” and is aimed at creating awareness about violence against women and makes the point that things are not always what they seem.

How it works:

There is an “eye tracking” camera attached to the digital board. When there are no eyes detected on the poster, the image that appears is where a man is striking his female partner. When the camera detects eyes (the viewer is looking directly at the poster) the image shifts to one of the couple looking posed, happy and put-together.

What is so interesting  about this ad campaign is that it proves it’s own point with the switching of the photos- when the person looks directly at it, everything appears to be “fine” – but a glance away reveals that there is abuse .

Check it out for yourself!

Kudos to Amnesty for using innovation and technology to create awareness about a very serious problem.

If you’re in the Hamilton area and are experiencing abuse, or know someone who is Woman Abuse Working Group has resources that can help you, including how to cover your tracks online.

photo via.

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Influential Women in Comic Books?

Bluewater Productions has a really interesting biography comic book series about influential women called “Female Force”. Recently added to the roster: Barbara Walters and Caroline Kennedy.

According to Bluewater:

…these two women epitomize what we try achieve with Female Force,” said Bluewater president Darren Davis. “Its not necessarily about wielding political power, but rather through the sum their influence they shape the debate. Kennedy and Walters, each in their own way, have done that.”Kennedy, whose biography comic hits shelves this Wednesday, tells the story of a daughter living in the shadow of a powerful political dynasty only to emerge as a tireless philanthropist and activist. The book includes her recent attempt to fill the senate seat vacated by Hillary Clinton.

The Walters story follows her rise as a researcher for the Today Show to her ascension as the first female anchor on a national evening news broadcast. Her struggle for acceptance and respect serves as the focus of the book, but also includes her more recent accolades as a celebrity interviewer and the “force” behind the popular syndicated program “The View.”

Other notable women, turned comic book stars, include Sarah Palin, Hilary Clinton, Princess Dianna, Condoleeza Rice and Oprah Winfrey.

What do you think about this? Is this a positive step for women, who are rarely the “heroes” in comic books or is it demeaning, reducing women to colourful caricatures ?

Which Canadian women would you like to see as lead characters in “Female Force”?

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Love Your Body

The NOW Foundation hosts an annual Love Your Body Poster contest.

Here is what they say about the contest:

The grand prize winning poster will be used as part of a national campaign to challenge the media’s use of violent, drug-addicted, starved, surgically-enhanced images of women and to fight against industries that profit from women’s dissatisfaction with their bodies.

The deadline for entries this year is December 1st 2009.

Take a look at the 2009 winners for inspiration and then start conspiring about the poster that YOU are going to enter this December. How fantastic would it be to have a woman from Hamilton win?!


Marie Bushbaum, Grand Prize Winner, 2009


Category 1 2009 winner, Open,  Yvette Shore
Hamilton, New Zealand


Category 2 2009 winner, University and College: Lisa Champ
Utica, New York


Category 3 2009 winner, High School: Jorge Cortez
Fontana, California


Category 4 2009 Winner, Middle and Elementary School: Vijeyta V. Revankar
Seabrook, Texas

See more past winners here!

Start dreaming about your poster and “love your body” message now!  Let’s use our creative forces to celebrate women and promote health body image!