The possibility of an internal crisis between the displaced Ukrainian women and men
Editors’ note: This column is part of the Vox debate on the economic consequences of war.
The courage of the Ukrainian people to defend their country against Russian aggression is astonishing. The way they have stood up for their freedom, and expanded for the freedom of the citizens of the neighboring country, is a lesson of sacrifice, courage and duty for all of us. Since the end of February, more than six million Ukrainians have fled their country and many have been internally displaced. An element of the Ukrainian strategy for fighting this war demands further debate, as it may have unintended, long-term consequences for the welfare and happiness of the Ukrainian family: the separation of men from women and children.
This separation is the result of the formation of the Ukrainian army: it was a male-only institution, a legacy of the Soviet Union itself where the army was for men only. When the war broke out, able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 60 were forced to stay in Ukraine, where women and children were brought safely to other European countries. The policy also affected Ukrainian men who were working abroad but quickly returned to Ukraine to protect and remove their family members. They are trapped in their own country and unable to return to work. Since these people do not have military training, they are not sent to war by the Ukrainian leadership, but they need to stay in Ukraine. The frustration is growing as they are unable to make money.
The military is an inconsistency in present-day Ukraine as an institution for men only. Women make up 47% of the Ukrainian workforce, so many Ukrainian women work outside the home. Based on gender attitudes and the gender pay gap between Gatskova (2021), post-Soviet Ukraine was a moderately traditional society before the 2014 conflict: the gender pay gap in Ukraine was relatively high at 27-33% in 2003-2012 and only a small Part of the result of endowment differences between men and women (e.g. education, work experience, economic sector, etc.). Gatskova writes that discriminatory practices can be nurtured by the corresponding gender attitudes and that people generally consider lower wages to be justified for female employees. Ukrainian women carry threefold burdens: they work outside the home, are underpaid, and suffer loss of household and child rearing. Also, Ukraine’s workforce has high scores on education, including women with significantly higher enrollment in the third tier than men (Danish Trademark Development Agency 2022). Before the war, the average salary in Ukraine was about € 400 per month.
At the same time, the country has become one of the most immigration-affected countries in Europe. Expatriate remittances have become a central part of the economy and they are significantly higher than foreign direct investment. According to Frattini and Solmone (2022), a distinctive feature of the Ukrainian immigrant population is the unusually high presence of women: an average of 55% in the EU, 60% in Germany and Poland, and 75% in Greece and Italy. Many Ukrainian women and men are accustomed to working abroad while their relatives are in Ukraine. This situation has given rise to divided families in different countries, which sociologists have termed as ‘transnational units’ (Heidinger 2008, 2013). The transnational organization of a family is a difficult balancing act. Many Ukrainian women who migrate to EU countries for work leave their young children behind. Haidinger (2013) reported that the responsibility for caring for children rested with the father, who lagged behind only three of the 23 women interviewed in Vienna. In all other cases, strong and lasting support was provided by the (extended) family – first by the grandmother, then by her sister. This is not the case with male immigration, where the responsibility falls entirely on the wife. Immigrant women told Heidinger (2013) that their husbands were not able to provide emotional support to their children and that they trusted their own mothers and sisters more.
Since these women manage to send home an average of € 300 to € 400 per month representing 50% of the household income (Pieńkowski 2020), they become the real earners of the family. This leads to the loss of the dignity of the husband in Ukraine.1 Their inability to find a well-paying job and their perceived inability to care for children makes many women question their marriage. The distance of family members who are left behind leads to separation from both sides. In Vienna, they have learned to realize a new freedom away from traditional, conservative rules that govern family life. Only one of the 23 Ukrainian women interviewed by Heidinger (2013) was able to stick to her original plan: to stay one year, to earn enough money and to return to Ukraine. For everyone else, the decision to relocate to Vienna has become a project with many unexpected twists. In addition, his work on Ukrainian immigration to Italy, Tyldum (2015) has shown that poverty is not the only cause of immigration. From her interviews with immigrants and non-immigrants, she writes that in light of the difficult access to divorce in western Ukraine because of religion, immigration can sometimes be motivated by a desire to stay away from a difficult marriage. Her interviewers feel more appreciated at home by older Italians than by their husbands.
How does it work in the current situation of forced eviction? This is not good for Ukrainian men for at least four reasons. First, thanks to the EU’s temporary protection guidelines, Ukrainian women can now legally reside in EU countries hosting them, a major game-changer that has complicated the lives of women in the past, many of whom were working without legal permission. Second, women at this time with their (tragic) children, another game-changer compared to past immigration where displaced women have tried their best not to be separated from the children left behind, often in vain. Third, forcibly displaced women are on average more educated than women who immigrated to the European Union before the war, again improving their chances of finding a well-paying job (Justino et al. 2014, Brück et al. 2019). Fourth, war survivors are more likely to be injured, have less employment, and thus have less family sustenance. In addition, many men suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and become more aggressive with their families (Rehn and Johnson Sirleaf 2002). Research indicates that many fighters have difficulty converting to peacetime nonviolent behavior after returning home.
This means that these transnational household units have a lot of potential for inter-household conflict. The longer the war lasts, and the longer the separation of men from women and children, the harder it will be to make decisions in the international unit. When choices change (as a result of exposure to new rules) and the value of exit options changes (as a result of new opportunities), a significant number of Ukrainian women may consider staying in the EU. Whether this will lead to an increase in divorce rates will also depend on the willingness of men to stay in the EU and permission to do so. Pre-war divorce rates were already high in Ukraine in general and in international units in particular.
Brück, T, M Di Maio and S Miaari (2019), “Learning the Hard Way: The Impact of Violent Conflict on Students’ Academic Achievements”, Journal of the European Economic Association 17 (5): 1502-1537.
Danish Trademark Development Agency (2022), Labor market profile UkraineCopenhagen, 41 p.
Frattini, T and I Solmone (2022), “Labor Market Difficulties for Migrant Women”, VoxEU.org, 30 March.
Gatskova, K. (2021), “Gender Wage Gap and Gender Attitudes in Ukraine”, T. Karabuchuk, K. Kumo, K. Gatskova and E. Skoglund (ed.), Gendering post-Soviet space. Values in population, labor market and empirical research, Springer, p. 181-194.
Haidinger, B (2008), “The Situation in the Family: Labor and the Gender Division of the Transnational Household Organization – The Case of the Ukrainians in Austria”, Chapter 9, Immigration and Domestic Work: A European Perspective on a Global Theme, Routledge, London.
Heidinger, B (2013), Being a housewife for two countries, Verlag Westfälisches DampfbootMunster, 289 p.
Justino, P. L. Marinella and P. Salardi (2014), “Short- and Long-Term Effects of Violence on Education: The Case of Timur Lest”, World Bank Economic Review 28: 320–353.
Klugman, J (2022), Gender Dimensions of Forced Displacement: A Synthesis of New ResearchWorld Bank, Washington DC.
Kuntsevych, I (2017), “Remittances to Ukraine using Household Data”, CERGE-EI Working Paper Series No. 590.
Pieńkowski, J (2020), “The Impact of Labor Migration on the Ukrainian Economy”, European Economic Discussion Paper 123, European Commission, Brussels.
Rehan, E and E Johnson Sirleaf (2002), Women, War, Peace: Independent Experts Assess the Impact of Armed Conflict on Women and the Role of Women in PeacebuildingNew York: Unifame.
Tyldum, G (2015), “Understanding Women’s Immigration in the Light of a Welcome Divorce, Limited Access to Divorce”, Nordic Journal of Migration Research 5 (3): 135-142.
1 study on Syrian refugees in Jordan similarly reports that gender conventions among the beneficiaries of cash transfers have been “reversed”. Women beneficiaries feel more independent, self-reliant and able to express their needs. However, men feel depressed and helpless. In some cases, focus group discussions suggest that, instead of improving collective decision-making, cash transfers apply the single control of transfers to some men to restore their socially recognized role as household providers (Klugman 2022).