An estimated 4,000 persons, primarily women, engage in sex work in the capital city of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar (UNICEF 2006). The 1998 Mongolian Law against Pornography and Prostitution made the organisation or facilitation of prostitution illegal. However, many small hotels, massage parlours, salons, saunas, bars and nightclubs still organise and provide sex services for their clients. Due to extremely harsh winters, some women only carry out sex work during the warm, summer months. During the winter months, sex work typically occurs indoors, increasingly with the use of phone services or in local motels, bars and nightclubs. In the warmer seasons, women often conduct sex work outside, on the street, or migrate to places where many people gather for trading, working, travelling or tourism. Also, given the expansion of mining for natural resources in Mongolia, mining exploration sites have become common places for sex work. Given the changes in technology and economy, formerly street-based women may spend less time on the street as they can use cell phones to connect with clients (Carlson et al. 2012). The influx of mining and investment opportunities has resulted in a sharp increase in the rate of reimbursement for sex work, but not necessarily for other means of earning money for those in low income brackets. The majority (95.59 per cent) of women in our most recent study operate independently, without a broker, pimp or ‘boss’ (Tsai et al. 2013). For women who do work for a broker, this person may be a boyfriend, husband, former paying partner, or another woman. Although brokers sometimes offer a level of protection from client or police harass­ment, they can also be abusive or coercive. Both street and indoor-based sex work clients are a mainly mobile population of men, including migrant workers, truck drivers, merchants, and tourists from other countries such as China, South Korea and Japan. While most clients are married, they reportedly purchase sex from other women in search of different sexual experiences (Witte et al. 2010).

Reflective of the broader population of women in Mongolia, women engaged in sex work tend to be highly educated. In a recent study conducted by our team with sex workers in Ulaanbaatar, out of a sample of 204 women, the vast majority (92.16 per cent) have completed secondary schooling or beyond, with 8.82 per cent of women having graduated from a four-year college or university (Tsai et al. 2013). Women of all ages are engaged in sex work in Mon­golia. Although our studies excluded girls younger than 18, evidence suggests that there is an increasing number of girls aged 14—17 who are engaged in sex work. These girls may earn more than older women and are, at times, trafficked out of Mongolia to engage in sex work in China and other countries (The Asia Foundation 2006). A recent study sample included women up to 61 years old, with a mean age of 32. Approximately half of women (50.49 per cent) reported working in sex work for four years or less, while just over 10 per cent have been working in sex work for 15 years or longer. The average age of entry into sex work was 29.17 years, with the age of entry ranging from 14 to 52 years (Tsai et al. 2013).

Sixty-three per cent of women report that they originally entered sex work due to financial difficulties or family financial crises, with many indicating that they were unable to find other kinds of employment (Tsai et al. 2011). On average, women have around three paying partners per day (Witte et al. 2011). When asked about their monthly income, 38.64 per cent reported earning on average less than 250,000 MNT monthly (184 USD), 35.23 per cent reported earning from

250.0 to 500,000 MNT monthly (184 to 368 USD), 15.91 per cent reported earning from

500.0 to 1,000,000 MNT monthly (368 to 737 USD), and 10.23 per cent reported earning more than 1,000,000 MNT per month (737 USD) (Tsai et al. 2011). Thus, roughly three quarters of women in our sample earn less than the base monthly salary of an entry-level teacher, a predominately female profession, of 465,466 MNT (354 USD) (Steiner-Khamsi et al. 2012: 4).

Many women engaged in sex work are the primary breadwinners and chief financial decision makers for their families. Among a sample of 204 women screened for our recent study, most (85.78 per cent) have children whom they support financially, and most also report having at least one adult whom they support financially (Tsai et al. 2013). Since the transition to a free – market economy, education costs have largely shifted from the state to individuals and most women from our sample reported that their children’s education was their primary savings goal. About 60 per cent of women from our most recent study reported monthly household incomes which we estimate put them below the poverty line (Tsai et al. 2013). Although some find additional economic support from government grants or other income generating activities (such as working in a restaurant, running a small business, construction work, cleaning, or childcare), sex work provides the primary source of income for most women in our studies. The majority ofwomen engaged in sex work typically do not have savings, and over halfcurrently owe money for day-to-day living expenses, health care, education, non-health-related emergencies, a family member’s debt or work-related expenses (Tsai et al. 2013). In addition to these financial responsibilities, women also take their other family roles very seriously and often structure their sex work activities around the needs of their children, partners, parents and others.

In a recent study, we found that around half of women report not having a current intimate partner (a boyfriend, lover, or husband distinct from a paying partner) (Tsai et al. 2013), perhaps because many men have left the country in search of work. Women often serve as the ‘head of household’ in families with no male partner or one who has left the country for work. Also, some men have multiple partners and provide financial support to more than one household, resulting in increased financial burdens on women as the providers for the family. Participants attending focus groups to assist researchers in understanding and interpreting findings consistently stated that their intimate partners face their own difficulties obtaining employment, use alcohol to an extent that interferes with their ability to earn and/or use their limited financial resources to support others outside the women’s households (such as extended family networks, multiple intimate partners and/or their own children). Some women reported that they are burdened financially by paying off their partner’s debts. Even when an intimate partner is present, women consistently indicated that they are the ones who take responsibility for emergency financial needs in their families (Tsai et al. 2011). These economic challenges further evidence the disproportionate impact on women of the transition to a free-market economy in Mongolia (UNIFEM 2001).