VoxEU Column Gender Politics and economics

Forced displacement, gender identity norms, and marital stability in the wake of the war in Ukraine

Since February, more than six million Ukrainians have left their country and as many have been internally displaced. As the Ukrainian army is an overwhelmingly male institution, the war has led to the separation of many men from their spouses and children. This column argues that this factor may have unintended, long-term consequences for the welfare of Ukrainian households. It warns that a protracted war creates risks of intra-household conflict and higher divorce rates among these transnational household units. 

Editors' note: This column is part of the Vox debate on the economic consequences of war.

The courage of the Ukrainian population in defending their country against the Russian invasion is astonishing. The way they are standing up for their freedom, and in extension for the freedom of citizens of neighbouring countries, is a lesson in sacrifice, bravery, and duty for us all. Since the end of February, more than six million Ukrainians have left their country and as many have been internally displaced. One element of the Ukrainian strategy for fighting this war deserves more debate, as it may have unintended, long-term consequences for the welfare and happiness of Ukrainian households: the separation of men, women, and children.     

This separation is the result of the composition of the Ukrainian army: it is an overwhelmingly male institution, which itself is a legacy of the Soviet Union, where the army was exclusively for men. When the war broke out, able men between the ages of 18 and 60 were obliged to stay in Ukraine, while several million women and children were brought to safety in other European countries. Women have been allowed to join the Ukrainian army since 2016, and around 30,000 women are presently part of the army. These women are making significant contributions to the defence of the country, including in combat operations (VOA News 2022). Kateryna Pryimak of the Ukrainian Women Veteran Movement states they had to fight for equal rights within the army, but adds that men increasingly appreciate the contribution of women.  

The army being a mostly male institution is an anomaly in present-day Ukraine, where 47% of the workforce is female and many women work outside the household. Empirical work on gender attitudes and the gender pay gap by Gatskova (2021) reveals that post-Soviet Ukraine prior to the 2014 conflict was a moderately traditional society: the gender wage gap in the country remained at a relatively high level of 27–33% in 2003–2012, with only a small part of this the result of differences in endowments (education, work experience, economic sector, etc.) between men and women. Discriminatory practices, Gatskova writes, may be nurtured by the respective gender attitudes, and people generally consider lower wages for female employees as justified. Ukrainian women carry a triple burden: they work outside the household, they are paid less, and they do the brunt of housekeeping and child rearing. In addition, Ukraine’s workforce scores high in education levels, with women exhibiting a remarkably higher enrolment rate at tertiary level than men (Danish Trade Mark Development Agency 2022). The average salary in Ukraine before the war was around €400 per month.            

Referring to work on gender identity norms by Bertrand et al. (2015) in the US using large datasets, aversion to a wife earning more than her husband affects social and economic outcomes, with high-skilled women working less hours or avoiding the labour market altogether in order not to jeopardise marital stability. New research indicates that this aversion has recently diminished in many countries (Van Bavel et al. 2018). According to the 2022 World Value Survey, however, among married or co-habiting couples in Ukraine, wives report higher levels of unhappiness when they are the breadwinner of the couple compared to when they are not the breadwinner, while this is not the case for men.  Only 10% of the female respondents who live with their partner report being the breadwinner, compared to 71% of men – a strong sign of conformity to traditional gender roles.

At the same time, the country has been one of the countries in Europe most affected by migration. The Ukrainian diaspora’s remittances have become a central part of the economy and they are significantly higher than foreign direct investments. As Fratinno and Solmone (2022) write, a specific feature of the Ukrainian migrant population is the unusually high presence of women: 55% on average in the EU, 60% in Germany and Poland, and as much as 75% in Greece and Italy. Many Ukrainian women and men are used to working abroad while their relatives remain in Ukraine. This situation has given rise to households that are split across different countries, or what sociologists have termed ‘transnational units’ (Haidinger 2008, 2013). The transnational organisation of a household is a difficult balancing act. Many Ukrainian women who migrate to EU countries for work leave young children behind. Haidinger (2013) reported that only in the cases of three out of the 23 women she interviewed in Vienna was the responsibility of caring for these children in the hands of the father who had stayed behind. In all other cases, strong and durable support was given by the (extended) family – the grandmother in the first place, sometimes helped by a sister. This is not the case in the event of male migration, when childcare responsibility falls entirely on the spouse. Migrating women told Haidinger (2013) that their husbands are not able to offer emotional support to the children and that they trust their own mother and sister more. 

As these women manage to send on average €300–400 home every month, representing 50% of household income (Pieńkowski 2020), they become the de facto breadwinner in the household. This leads to a violation of the gender norm and a loss of status for the husbands who remained in Ukraine.1 The inability of men to find a well-paid job and their perceived unfitness to care for their children leads women to question their marriage. The distance from the household members who stayed behind leads to alienation, on both sides. In Vienna, they have learned to appreciate a new freedom, away from traditional, conservative norms that guide family life. Of the 23 Ukrainian women interviewed by Haidinger (2013) – admittedly, a very small sample – only one had managed to stick to her original plan to stay one year, earn enough money, and then return to Ukraine. For all others, the decision to migrate to Vienna became a project with many unforeseen twists.

In her work on Ukrainian migration to Italy, Tyldum (2015) showed that poverty is not the only reason for migration. From her interviews with migrants and non-migrants, she finds that migration can sometimes be motivated by a wish to get away from a difficult marriage, in light of difficult access to divorce in Western Ukraine due to religion. Her interviewees feel more appreciated by the senior Italian citizens they work for than by their husbands at home. Relatedly, Chiappori et al. (2017), investigating a large Russian dataset, find that the estimate associated with the female perception of the match quality (i.e. the non-monetary aspect of marriage) in a probit model estimating the probability of divorce is about three times higher than the estimate associated with the male perception of the match quality. 

In the case where emigration is a way to escape a difficult marriage, divorce becomes endogenous to the migration decision, pointing to the issue of selection bias in the data and stories collected among migrated women. Forced displacement does not face this issue to the same extent, thereby questioning the application of research results from economic or voluntary migration to a situation of forced displacement. In the case of war, there are countervailing forces at work. Gender-identity norms and the salience given to relative income within couples can evolve in either direction. On one hand, several war-induced elements strengthen the traditional role of men as breadwinners. First, the bravery and success with which (mostly) men have defended their country as soldiers may increase the observance and status of norms that are associated with masculinity. These men may also benefit from pensions and other benefits accessible to war veterans. This may drive women away from the labour market back into a traditional role. Second, the need for reconstruction of demolished infrastructure may drive up wages in sectors of the economy traditionally dominated by men more than in sectors with a large female workforce, even when reconstruction may not be the best course of action (Verwimp et al. 2019). Third, the increase in social cohesion experienced when fighting a war tends to strengthen intra-community relations after the war (Voors et al. 2012), which may in turn have a positive effect on marital stability.   

On the other hand, several elements strengthen the position of women relative to men. First, thanks to the EU Temporary Protection Directive, Ukrainian women can now stay legally in EU countries that host them, a major game-changer to something that had complicated the lives of past cohorts of women, many of whom were working without a legal permit. Second, women migrants are this time accompanied by their (young) children, another major difference compared to past migration were migrated women did everything possible not to be alienated from the children who remained behind (often in vain. Third, to the extent that the forcibly displaced women are, on average, more educated than the women who migrated to the EU before the war, their chances of finding a well-paid job may be better (Justino 2014, Brück et al. 2019). Finally, men that survive the war are more likely to be injured, less employable, and thus less able to provide for the household. In addition, many men may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and may become more aggressive towards their families (Gimbel and Booth 1994, Rehn and Johnson Sirleaf 2002, Ruger et al. 2002). Research indicates that many combatants have difficulty making the transition to peace-time non-violent behaviour after returning home.  

This means that there is a lot of scope for intra-household conflict in these transnational household units. The longer the war lasts, and the longer the separation of men, women and children, the more difficult decision making in the transnational unit will become. When preferences change (as a result of exposure to new norms) and the value of the exit option changes (as a result of new opportunities), a significant number of Ukrainian women may consider remaining in the EU. The effect of changing norms, however, could be non-monotonic, as Routon (2017) finds in the cases of other wars.

The net effect of these countervailing forces on gender identity norms and on marital stability are uncertain and as yet unknown. Pre-war divorce rates in Ukraine in general, and among transnational units in particular, were already high. Much will depend on the way Ukrainian women and men perceive and construct their post-war gender identity. Whether or not this will lead to increased divorce rates, and which birth cohorts could be more or less affected, remains an open question. Allowing partners of forcibly displaced persons in the EU to also reside in the EU when the war is over (i.e. allowing family reunions) may help to overcome some of the issues mentioned above. Having on open debate in Ukraine on the consequences of the war for gender identity may allow people to understand and articulate their own experiences, which is a first step towards deal with them.

Author’s note: The author would like to thank the moderators of the Vox debate on The Economic Consequences of War for valuable comments that have improved the text substantially and Bram De Rock and Jan Van Bavel for valuable references to the literature. All opinions expressed are the responsability of the author only.


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Danish Trade Mark Development Agency (2022), Labour Market Profile: Ukraine, Copenhagen.

Frattini, T and I Solmone (2022), “The labour market disadvantages for immigrant women”, VoxEU.org, 30 March.

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1 Studies on Syrian refugees in Jordan report similarly that gender conventions were “turned upside down” among beneficiaries of cash transfers. Women beneficiaries felt more independent, self-reliant, and able to express their needs. However, men reported feeling depressed and emasculated. In some cases, focus group discussions indicated that, rather than improving joint decision-making, cash transfers led to some men exerting sole control of the transfers to regain their socially ascribed role as provider in the household (Klugman 2022).

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