Why most refugees from Ukraine are female — and why that matters

May 16, 2022
By Catherine Rolfe
May 16, 2022

The war in Ukraine has already forced millions of girls and their families flee their homes. But how you experience this conflict can vary drastically depending on your gender identity. Here, we tell you what this war means for different groups of people, and what you can do to help today.

Volunteers in Lviv, Ukraine have set up makeshift beds on the floor of the city’s train station, so that refugee families can rest while they wait for the train to Poland.

Military service in Ukraine

On Feb. 24, Ukraine’s State Border Guard Service issued a statement banning all male citizens between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving the country. Instead, Ukrainian men were ordered to register at their local military office.

Some exceptions were made for fathers with three or more children and people with medical issues. But thousands of people — of all genders — have voluntarily enlisted. So far (as of late April), the Ukrainian government has not forced men to fight. But fears of forced enlistment remain.

As a girls’ rights organization fighting for gender equality, we can’t talk about gender-based conscription policies without highlighting the stereotypes they’re based on. Various countries around the world require men but not women to register for military service, including the U.S. And while national policies differ, the message is the same: Men are fighters and women are caregivers.

Of course, that’s far from the truth. Women — and other people who don’t identify as men — are just as fit for military service as their male peers. In fact, approximately 230,000 women served in the U.S. military in 2021 alone.

Plan staff member helps Ukrainian child use his new tablet for online education in Romania.

Female soldiers and officers made up about 15% of Ukraine’s military before the war started earlier this year, according to the national Ministry of Defense. Since then, numbers have increased even more, and social media is full of stories about regular Ukrainian women training for combat.

These stories are popular because they challenge traditional gender roles. And, while it’s important to celebrate the bravery of Ukrainian women, we also hope that someday the idea of a female soldier isn’t novel. It’s no surprise that these women are courageous and strong and dangerous — because why wouldn’t they be?

Limiting men to fighting and women to caregiving hurts men, too. In the same way that women are perfectly capable of military service, men are perfectly capable of taking care of children. Just ask one of the approximately 2 million single fathers in the U.S.

Exclusively encouraging men to enlist in the military also perpetuates harmful beliefs about what a man “should” be. If you don’t want to fight, does that make you less of a man?

Ukraine’s ban on men leaving the country has reportedly resulted in people shaming men who try to leave. The New York Times spoke to a man named Tyhran who tried to cross into Poland.

“This guy was forcing me to leave the queue of people,” he told the reporter. “I’ve been standing for six hours, and people were starting to shout. People were panicking, and they started to shout at me, shame, shame, shame, because everybody wanted to leave.”

Then, there are the people whose paperwork doesn’t match their gender identity.

Transgender people in Ukraine already faced discrimination before the war. In order to change your gender identity on legal documents, for example, the government required transgender people to undergo outpatient psychiatric examinations that could easily transition to inpatient hospitalization.

As a result, people who identify as women might still be considered male in the eyes of the law — making it impossible for them to leave the country under current circumstances.

“There’s no way Ukrainian border people can let me through,” one transgender woman told CBS. “There’s no way.”

Ukrainian mother and daughter receive vouchers from Plan to purchase menstrual products.

The reality for Ukrainian girls and women as refugees

Meanwhile, countless painful scenes at Ukraine’s borders continue playing out, as families split along gender- and age-determined lines. The women and children must cross, while men must stay home. An estimated 90% of people fleeing the country are women and children.

These refugees are left with full responsibility for family members, including children and older relatives. While dealing with the emotional strain of witnessing a war outside their own homes, women are also experiencing the added stress of finding shelter, food, medical services and education for any children in their care.

[Read more: Photo story: Through the eyes of Ukrainian refugees]

And, because women without men are seen as more vulnerable, the risk of gender-based violence increases. Refugee families are in desperate need of shelter, which means they might resort to accepting sketchy offers of accommodation. Hastily opened shelters are often overcrowded and lack basic supplies like beds or blankets. There’s a need for clean areas to cook and do laundry, and for better lighting so that girls and women can access bathroom facilities safely. Trafficking risks are even higher for refugee girls and women. People who already experienced discrimination in Ukraine, including LGBTQIA+ people and members of the Roma community, are also more likely to experience discrimination when searching for housing.

Lydia, 25, made the decision to leave her home in Ukraine with her two children, while her partner had to stay.

“It was very scary,” Lydia told a Plan staff member. “I didn’t want to live like that. The air defense sirens were always going off and my children were very scared.”

Lydia poses for a photo with her two sons in the train station in Lviv.

We met Lydia in Lviv, a city in western Ukraine about 40 miles from the Polish border. She was hoping to make it to Bulgaria, where she has friends who will take them in. But she didn’t have enough money to pay for the journey yet. Someone had offered to drive her to Bulgaria, but she told us that she wasn’t sure if she could trust the person, and felt scared about what might happen next.

Lydia told us that she tries not to tell her children too much about what’s going on back home.

“They know that there is a war but we don’t tell them anything else,” she says. “I don’t know if it is right to tell them. There are many people we know, relatives, who are still there because they have stayed behind, so I don’t want to upset them and I don’t want them to worry.”

Plan is providing refugee families like Lydia’s with emergency support, including food, counseling and help finding shelter and enrolling children in school. We are currently responding in Poland, Moldova and Romania.

“The needs move very quickly,” Plan International Director of Global Supply Chain Cecile Terraz says. “First people needed accommodation and now people need food, they need hygiene kits, they need to go back to school. So, with the money we receive from our donors, people who trust us, we can invest this money locally where the needs are.”

Give now to make sure that Ukrainian girls and their families can get the support they need.