SWAN Vancouver grew out of a women’s project that started as a pilot in a non-profit HIV/AIDS service organization. The group of women that came together for this project started outreach service to massage parlours. We gathered the life stories of women working in sex work as part of an action research project looking at access to healthcare and vulnerability to HIV/AIDS. During the project, we recognized that women in massage parlours were dealing with a host of issues that were much broader than HIV/AIDS and sexual health. The concerns that were most important to women in massage parlours were linked to issues related to the law, immigration, employment, among others. At the end of the project, we recognized how important outreach work was and decided to continue working together.
For the first few months, we had no funding, no office, no organizational status but we had energy and experience. Some of us established independent contracts with the Street Nurses program at BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) and continued to provide outreach. Other members supported these outreach workers and collectively, started educating ourselves about issues like immigration and prostitution law, migrant support services, violence against women, and support services for women exiting the sex work sector. In February 2004, Sex Workers’ Action Network was formed. In March, we received funding from the Status of Women Canada and on May 30th, 2004 we were officially launched as a group. From November 2004, SWAN started getting requests to provide assistance for migrant women who were otherwise unable to access support and services because of their irregular status.
In 2008, we became incorporated as a registered non-profit under the BC Society Act. We also changed our name from Sex Workers Action Network to Supporting Women’s Alternatives Network (SWAN Vancouver Society) based on our discussions with women working in massage parlours who stated that not all women in sex work identified themselves primarily as sex workers and felt that a more inclusive name would better reflect the women SWAN works with. In 2017, SWAN became a nationally registered charity.
SWAN has expanded our outreach to cover a variety of indoor sex work sites in the Greater Vancouver area. We participate in forums and meetings locally, nationally and internationally both to learn and to raise awareness in public debate of the priorities and needs of women in off-street sex work.
SWAN is independent from government authorities, law enforcement and religious organizations.