The Financial Lives and Capabilities of Women Engaged in Sex Work: Can Paradoxical Autonomy Inform Intervention Strategies?

  •  Lyla S. Yang    
  •  Susan S. Witte    
  •  Carolina Vélez-Grau    
  •  Tara McCrimmon    
  •  Assel Terlikbayeva    
  •  Sholpan Primbetova    
  •  Gaukhar Mergenova    
  •  Nabila El-Bassel    


INTRODUCTION: Despite growing attention to structural approaches to HIV prevention, including economic empowerment interventions for key populations, few studies examine the financial lives of women engaged in sex work (WESW) and even fewer examine the financial lives of those who also use drugs. The purpose of this paper is to examine the financial status, sex work involvement, and individual and structural vulnerabilities of women involved in sex work and drug use in Kazakhstan.

METHODS: We used baseline data from Project Nova, a cluster-randomized controlled trial that tested the efficacy of a combined HIV risk reduction and microfinance intervention for WESW in two cities in Kazakhstan. We collected data on income, savings, debt, sex work, drug use, homelessness, food insecurity, HIV status, attitudes towards safety, and financial knowledge from 400 participants through computer-assisted self-interview techniques. Descriptive statistics were utilized to describe and characterize the sample and aforementioned measures.

RESULTS: Findings illustrate the paradoxical nature of sex work, wherein women may achieve economic independence despite the great adversities they encounter in their daily lives and work. The majority of women (65%) in this study reported being the highest income earner in the household, caring for up to 3 dependents, and demonstrated entrepreneurial characteristics and aspirations for the future. However, many were still living below the poverty line (72.5%), as well as experiencing high levels of homelessness (58%) and food insecurity (89.5%).

CONCLUSION: Study findings underscore the need for better understanding of the existing capabilities of WESW and those who use drugs, including financial autonomy and community supports, that may guide the design of programs that most effectively promote women’s economic well-being and ensure that it is not at the expense of wellness and safety. Designing such programs requires incorporating a social justice lens into social work and public health interventions, including HIV prevention, and attention to the human rights of the most marginalized and highest risk populations, including WESW and those who use drugs.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.