An overview of the gendered effects in conflict-induced displacement: The Ukrainian crisis
The recent Ukrainian crisis urges us to reflect again on the debates and realities of gendered effects on conflict-induced forced displacement. Ukraine has a unique demographic profile (a 54:46 women-to-men ratio) with modest gender equality progress (ranking 74th on the Gender Gap Index). The gendered effects of the current humanitarian crisis persist since the protracted armed conflict that started in 2014, when gender-based violence (GBV) increased from 18.3% (2007) to 22.4% (2014) and displaced women suffered three times more (15.2%) than non-displaced residents (5.3%). Considering this context, how does displacement affect people with regard to gender?
The recent invasion on 24 February 2022 had already resulted in 6.9 million people internally displaced, and another 7 million externally displaced by April 2022. An estimated 90% of the displaced people are women, whereas men have been forced to remain in the country for conscription under martial law. An in-depth look reveals further gendered differences, especially if we consider the deconstruction of the conventional gender narratives (e.g. women as victims and men as fighters), as suggested by Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh. More specifically, Fiddian-Qasmiyeh suggests that we consider ‘not only the experiences of women, but how women and men, girls and boys, are differentially involved in, and affected by, conflict situations which lead to mass displacement’. Under this lens, I am offering an overview of the gendered effects of conflict-induced displacement by focusing on the Ukrainian crisis.
To sketch this overview I looked into the existing data and reports on Ukraine’s humanitarian crisis. I draw particularly on statistical data, qualitative analysis and ten news reports from international, regional and national humanitarian organisations as well as popular news media websites (timeline of 24 February-20 June 2022).
Gender inequalities and gendered experiences have been part of Ukraine’s social reality and conflict-related history. For example, Ukraine displays a disproportionate share of weekly unpaid care work (women’s 24.6 hours versus men’s 14.5 hours) and increased GBV in 2019. Women’s vulnerability was evident in increased food insecurity, and in the lack of documentation of over 60% of displaced Roma women and children. Vulnerable people further include women living with human immunodeficiency viruses (HIV), sex workers, and LGBTQI+ people. Humanitarian organisations consider that the recent war poses additional gender-related and intersectional inequalities and risks.
Based on the available data and reports, I outline the visible gender-related effects distinguished in the following themes:
Men to ‘protect’ and women at ‘protection risk’
Ukraine’s case highlights that conflict-induced emergency management evokes traditional gendered narratives. There were instances when a man with a child could not cross the land border, and trans women were pushed back to war as ‘men’ against their will and legal status. These cases illustrate the gendered dimensions in the application of the conscription rule. Besides, gender stereotypes were visible in women’s evacuation decisions. For example, a woman felt guilty of being a ‘terrible mother’ for not protecting her child by fleeing. Other women chose to leave to continue performing care responsibilities, while the war has also pushed many into the more precarious informal economy.
The complex web of intersecting vulnerability and marginalisation
The case of Ukraine also shows us how women’s vulnerability and marginalisation intersect in multiple and complex manners. The factors of this intersection comprise the pre-existing vulnerabilities of older women, internally displaced women, women living with disabilities, rural women and women from ethnic minorities (especially Roma), female-headed households, women living with HIV, and LGBTQI+ communities. For socially marginalised women, their gender-induced vulnerabilities further intersect with this condition. For example, Roma women and children, people of African descent, Arabs and Indians were forced to wait or were segregated in poor conditions until the evacuation of ethnic Ukrainians was completed. Further incidents such as threats at the border and challenges in accessing humanitarian support show how the intersecting factors of race and minority status increased their vulnerabilities.
Struggling for accessing sexual and reproductive healthcare and social services for GBV
In the Ukrainian case, the GBV response indicated certain challenges in mental health support and Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare (SRH). Both the prevention of GBV and the protection of GBV survivors were deprioritized. With healthcare facilities destroyed, maternal healthcare became compromised for an estimated 265,000 women. Access to services further deteriorated for women and girls living with HIV who could not use daily needed lifesaving healthcare services. Gendered effects are also visible when men are less likely to seek mental health support.
Facts beyond gendered narratives
In the Ukrainian case, it is also essential that we follow Fiddian-Qasmiyeh’s approach of identifying the presence of ‘female agency rather than depicting women as non-agency victims’. In return migration, for instance, a third of the women travelling on their own intended to remain in Ukraine. Additionally, women have led the immediate humanitarian response by coordinating, helping others to flee, providing food, raising awareness among international audiences, and leading decision-making at the family and community levels. However, they are still not meaningfully included in planning and decision-making in the peace-making process.
This article draws on the existing and available data and reports from humanitarian organizations and news media, to reflect the visible gendered realities in conflict-induced displacement. As a closing remark, I encourage interested readers to take away four key learnings from the Ukrainian crisis: a) conflict narratives are still gendered and unequal; b) vulnerability and marginalisation have complex intersections; c) services in emergency contexts lack provisions for gender-specific needs; and d) the reality of women in conflict-induced mobilities is wider and more diverse than the gendered narratives of displacement.
Laila Tasmia is a sustainable development practitioner who focuses on gender, youth, and migration. She is currently doing her master’s degree in Sustainable Development Management at the Rhine Waal University of Applied Sciences. She is a DAAD scholar, a Migrant Youth Leader in the Center for Migration, Gender and Justice, a WEDU Rising Star Ambassador, and a Young Research Scholar at Global Research Forum on Diaspora and Transnationalism. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org