Although it is not a crime committed in Cambridge, the tragic death of 24-year-old Kelsey Felker has still hit very close to home. On January 26, 2013, Felker’s torso was discovered in a dumpster behind a Kitchener apartment building, only two blocks from the central police division. In less than a week, more of Felker’s remains were found in two other wooded areas in Kitchener.
This tragic ending to a young woman’s life has shaken our community, and it is probably one of the most heinous crimes our region has ever encountered – a crime that is completely unimaginable. It has sent a wave of panic through our community for other women working on the streets, and it is now highlighting the fact that there needs to be more protection for women that are sex trade workers, and as a community we have a responsibility to ensure that our most vulnerable are safe.
Sadly, this is another young life taken far too soon while living on the street, and it has left more questions than answers about how we must battle the issues surrounding her death. To refer to her as a crack addicted woman with a troubled past, is simply re-victimizing her all over again.
Her lifestyle choices, addictions, and her history are no excuse for her tragic death. No person deserves to meet their fate the way that Kelsey did, and to dehumanize her by making those issues the focus will only allow this type of crime to happen again.
Approximately 150 people gathered at Kitchener City Hall for a candlelight vigil in her memory, many of which did not know her but wanted to pay their respects. Michelle Fitzgerald, the organizer of the memorial, was pleased with the turnout and said, “Kelsey was a nice girl that looked out for others and didn’t always think of herself, she was very caring.”
Many of her friends that attended were disturbed by the portrayal of Kelsey in the media. Darcelle Carroll, who had lived with Kelsey as teenagers in a group home said, “It doesn’t matter if they have a drug addiction or not, they are still people.” Her sentiments were shared by many in attendance.
For Sara Casselman, a worker at the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region, she believes that this particular case (and many others) calls for even more consideration to changes in legislation being made. Approximately two years ago SWAN was formed (Sex Workers Action Network of Waterloo Region) and they have been calling for funding for Outreach workers for sex workers and so far it has fallen on deaf ears.
The primary reason for the amount of violence is that very few victims actually report the crime, and it is not just those working in the sex trade industry. For women that do work on the streets, many have had negative experiences with police and fear that they will be criminalized themselves.
There are initiatives in place to try and conquer this dangerous and growing problem, and locally we have what is called, “The Guardian Line,” (519-650-8558) for sex workers that have been victimized and wish to report but prefer to remain anonymous. Although it still makes it difficult for police to pursue the perpetrators, it is still helpful in the fight against this type of violence. For instance, if one woman reports a certain individual, and later down the road another reports that same person, it becomes easier for the police to detect a serial offender.
Casselman advocates for full labour and human rights for sex workers in an effort to bring more awareness to the issues and decrease the amount of violence that occurs today. In Canada less than ten per cent of victims of violence actually report, and this is the primary reason why it can be so difficult to apprehend individuals guilty of committing such crimes. Casselman says that, “Violence against sex workers is violence against women.” There is no difference if it is a middle class woman with a healthy background and bright future, or a woman with a trouble past and drug addiction, this violence is not acceptable for any woman to have to endure.
Violent offenders typically target women working in the sex trade as they are perceived as having fewer avenues of redress, and they are the least likely to report. Although prostitution in Canada is not illegal, it is illegal to communicate for the purpose of prostitution and also illegal to live off the avails of prostitution. Casselman says that this is part of the reason why the level of violence and danger is so high.
In 1999, in Sweden they passed a law which advocates are fighting for here in Canada in the Supreme Court. It is referred to as the “Nordic Model,” which criminalizes prostitution for those purchasing sex, and decriminalizes for those providing sex. It is alarming how much less violence occurs in the few countries that have already adopted this model, why should we not adopt this model here? This model has been successful in combating sex trafficking on all levels, not just women, but young children and boys as well by discouragement and decreasing the demand.
Kelsey Felker’s death should at the very least bring awareness to the dangers that people in the sex trade face and raise more questions about what we can do to put an end to it. Everyday we hear success stories of those with troubling pasts getting help, rehabilitation and moving on to lead successful and fulfilling lives. This is an opportunity that this young woman was robbed of, at the tender young age of just twenty-four. We have a responsibility to do what we can to make sure that other women do not get robbed of their life, future, and right to live a dignified and happy life. Let this be a lesson for all, that this type of violence must end and the only way that it will is if we all work together collectively to bring much needed change.