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Project Respect cares for vulnerable women

Women in the sex industry experience enormous stress to their health and wellbeing. Many are victims of violence and past and ongoing sexual abuse, and struggle with anxiety, insomnia and low self-esteem.

04 Jul 2010

Dr Georgina Phillips

Women in the sex industry experience enormous stress to their health and wellbeing. Many are victims of violence and past and ongoing sexual abuse, and struggle with anxiety, insomnia and low self-esteem. Perhaps two-thirds are single mothers. A great number have long-term drug and alcohol abuse problems. More common medical issues include sexually transmitted infections, dental disease and low mood. Many are on the cusp of homelessness. About 1,000 have been trafficked to Australia for the purposes of sexual slavery.

There is no doubt that Australian doctors encounter these women as patients, sometimes without understanding their specific needs. This often undermines these women’s care and overall wellbeing.

Enter Project Respect, a non-profit, community-based organisation in Victoria whose mission is to support women in the sex industry, including women trafficked to Australia, and help prevent exploitation and enslavement of women in the sex industry. Underpinning Project Respect’s advocacy, education and activism is practical support such as counselling, information and referral for women. The organisation also uses a strengths-based model to promote respect for all women.

Through more than 10 years of outreach in brothels, Project Respect has gathered vital information about the lives, health and experiences of women in the sex industry, which can aid doctors in providing holistic care to these women. This direct contact provides realistic estimates of the number of women trafficked to Australia, and enables the organisation to work closely with trafficked women. Part of this work includes providing safe emergency accommodation as well as holistic support, helping women negotiate the legal and psychological minefield of life after enslavement in the sex industry.

Project Respect plays a key advocacy role with local, State and Federal governments. After the death of a trafficked woman in immigration detention, Project Respect was instrumental in effecting legislative change by the Howard Government. More recently, it ran a successful media campaign during the High Court hearing of a case regarding sexual slavery, raising people’s awareness about the existence of slavery in Australia.

In 2008, Project Respect successfully ran Victoria’s first exit program for women wanting to leave the sex industry, which covered health, legal, financial and complex social issues. Women in this situation often find mainstream services difficult to engage with, because their past lives remain an uncomfortable and significant secret. Most importantly for health workers, Project Respect offers specialised training to community organisations such as health centres and women’s services, educating clinicians on the resources that are available and the work that Project Respect does.

Governments and organisations that work in this field value the work and achievements of Project Respect and fund specialised programs such as support for trafficked women. There is enormous need and Project Respect is currently fundraising for a Noodle Bar community enterprise project, which will employ trafficked women and enable them to develop independent business skills.

Australian doctors can also support vulnerable women by learning more about the work of Project Respect, utilising the resources they provide for women in the sex industry and those trafficked into sexual slavery, and by making a financial contribution to this unique, brave and empowering organisation.

For more information visit

Dr Phillips is an AMA member and Emergency Physician at St. Vincent’s Hospital, Melbourne. She is on the Committee of Management for Project Respect.

Published: 04 Jul 2010