British Columbia is being praised as the first province to offer free birth control, but for many immigrant and migrant women engaged in sex work, this program changes nothing.
After the B.C. government announced the free prescription contraceptives program in its recent budget, the province stated effective April 1, 2023, “PharmaCare will pay for many prescription contraceptives for any B.C. resident.” However, patients are required to show a pharmacist a birth control prescription and a BC Services Card, which is not available to temporary residents, including many of the women SWAN Vancouver supports.
“Trying to get birth control at the risk of being outed as a sex worker is just too dangerous,” said Nakyung Kim, a UBC Pharmacy student who recently completed a practicum with SWAN. “If women don’t have the proper I.D., they could be confronted with questions about their citizenship status or their jobs. In the worst-case scenario, suspicious healthcare providers could alert authorities including the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) which can arrest and detain women.”
In Canada, it is illegal under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations (IRPR) for any temporary residents to engage in sex work, despite recommendations to repeal some of the regulations. This forces migrant women in sex work to hide their occupation at all costs, even if it means paying upfront for medications like birth control.
“This is just one example of the risk these women face while trying to access basic services,” said Kelly Go, Program Manager for SWAN Vancouver. “Im/migrant women face layers of criminalization and the immigration ban on sex work trickles all the way down to their community pharmacy and impacts whether or not they can access the care they need without the threat of being arrested or deported.”
Kim makes three recommendations to make birth control more accessible:
- Recognizing sex work as legal work for im/migrants,
- Increasing the number of low-barrier healthcare clinics and pharmacies and,
- Providing community-led training for healthcare providers including pharmacists to increase access to safe, non-judgemental and accessible health and medical services for sex workers.
“Access to birth control and other prescription medications will continue to become easier for British Columbians, especially when pharmacists are able to write more prescriptions for patients this summer under a new B.C. government initiative. But again, those programs exclude im/migrant women navigating a restrictive healthcare system,” said Kim.
While SWAN Vancouver regularly accepts practicum students, we do not have the capacity to take on students over the next few months. Placements will be accepted again in the fall of 2023.