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The Gendered Dynamics of Forced Displacement

The Gendered Dynamics of Forced Displacement ​


Mira Nerpel

Women’s Rights Researcher,

Global Human Rights Defence


Exploring migration from a gendered perspective is a crucial endeavour, shedding light on the intricate experiences of women in the context of forced displacement. Migration has been a widespread global phenomenon for years, with countless individuals seeking new lives, opportunities, and safety across international borders. While both men and women embark on these transformative journeys, this academic paper delves into the unique challenges and struggles that women encounter during migration and within host countries. Zooming into gender-related  facets and aspects when analysing migration processes is not a recent practice, and it is an evolving and pivotal area of study. Throughout history, women have migrated for various reasons, which often diverge from those of men. Similarly, the hurdles women face while navigating new territories and adapting to different societies are distinct, and strongly influenced by their gender identities. As it unfolds, this paper seeks to systematically illuminate the multiple facets of this matter. It begins with an exploration of the theoretical framework, to elucidate how and why migration takes on inherently gender-specific dimensions. Subsequently, it delves into practical considerations, examining the incentives of female refugees to leave their home countries, the legal and procedural restrictions they encounter, and their experiences with employment while doing so. Finally, a case study of Ukraine is presented to anchor our analysis in a practical, real-life case. Through this comprehensive paper, we aim to contribute to a deeper comprehension of the gendered dimensions of migration, offering insights that can guide policies and practices. Ultimately, our goal is to foster more equitable and supportive environments for female migrants.


Theory: How is Migration Gendered?

Women have been marginalized from societal and public issues for decades. While many of these stigmas have been lifted, little has been done to draw attention to the gender-diverse experiences of migration (Fleury, 2016). The proliferation of feminist literature has been a huge catalyst for the appearance of this topic in academic literature by familiarising readers with gender sensitivity. Furthermore, the evolution of the modern-day labour market, demanding high levels of flexibility and opening up to new industry sectors, has brought new migration patterns to light (Fleury, 2016). The study of migration through a gendered lens is an essential component of understanding the complexities of human mobility. Migration is not a uniform experience; it is profoundly influenced by gender, which shapes the motives, challenges, and outcomes of individuals and their journeys. This section looks into the theoretical framework underpinning the gendered nature of migration, highlighting how and why this perspective is crucial for a truly nuanced analysis. Women’s motivations for migration often differ from men’s. While men might migrate primarily for economic opportunities or labour prospects, women’s decisions are frequently intertwined with family considerations, seeking safety, reuniting with loved ones, or escaping gender-based violence and discrimination.  


Some migration may be due to individual reasons instead of motivated by family. The IOM’s studies in Moldova and Guatemala find that single mothers, widows, or divorcees that experience discrimination may use migration to escape social stigma. (Fleury, 2016)


This gendered facet of motivation shapes the entire migration trajectory. By unpacking it, we get a fuller picture of the processes under study. This not only facilitates the design and implementation of more targeted policies and interventions, but also encourages a broader discussion on gender equality, social justice, and human rights in the context of forced displacement. In summary, investigating the gendered nature of migration allows us to recognise the unique experiences and challenges that women encounter during their journeys, informing more inclusive and equitable approaches to migration policy and practice.


Incentives, Laws and Employment

The following research will focus on how this is visible in the sectors of incentives to migrate, legal and procedural obstacles, and employment. While these categories only represent part of women migrants’ experiences, they represent three of the most essential and comparable indicators for the quality of livelihood. 


Incentives to Migrate

The incentives to migrate vary greatly from person to person, and even more so between men and women. These motivations are characterised by different factors,  such as personal, socioeconomic, and cultural. Research indicates that education level and employment status significantly influence migration patterns. Studies conducted in various regions offer nuanced insights into the motivations behind women’s migration, highlighting distinct factors that differentiate their experiences from those of men. For instance, a study carried out in 43 Mexican villages revealed a positive correlation between higher employment rates and education levels, particularly among women, indicating that education and employment are key drivers of female migration (Fleury, 2016). This study concludes that women are more likely to migrate and re-settle in a new country when equipped with a higher level of education and in regions with higher employment rates. This correlation can be explained by the positive relationship between education, employment, and access to resources. Furthermore, gender-based, structural inequalities and discrimination play a pivotal role in motivating women to migrate. Southeast Asian women, for example, may migrate specifically to escape forced marriages, seeking refuge from oppressive social norms (Lam and Hoang, 2010). Research suggests that in societies with lower levels of discriminatory social institutions, women are less likely to migrate to countries where discrimination is prevalent, indicating that gender-based discrimination directly influences migration decisions (Budasse and Bazillier, 2014). Interestingly, studies highlight a paradoxical relationship between gender equality and migration. As discriminatory social norms decrease in origin countries, women are more likely to migrate, seeking better opportunities and improved social conditions. Conversely, an increase in gender equality is correlated with a decline in migration among men, reflecting shifting gender dynamics (Budasse and Bazillier, 2014). This suggests that an improvement in gender equality not only encourages female migration but also enhances the overall skill level of migrants. In summary, the motivations for women to migrate are multifaceted, encompassing educational aspirations, employment opportunities, and the desire to escape gender-based discrimination and social constraints.   

  • Legal and Procedural Restrictions

The migration experience for women is often marred by specific legal obstacles that their male counterparts are spared. One significant hurdle stems from the reliance of many irregular migrant women on recruitment agencies, due to their limited access to resources and information. These agencies frequently exploit female migrants, imposing exorbitant fees on them. Given that migrant women generally earn less than men, this financial burden becomes an enduring challenge, hampering their economic progress even after they reach their country of destination (Ghosh, 2009). Additionally, these vulnerable positions render migrant women susceptible to abuse, gender-based violence, and trafficking at the hands of unscrupulous agents (Ghosh, 2009). Furthermore, a particular concern is the limitation on mobility, especially for married women. Shockingly, in 30 countries, married women lack the legal freedom to choose their residence, a constraint not faced by their male counterparts (OECD, 2023). Moreover, 19 countries legally mandate that women obey their husbands, thereby severely curtailing their personal agency and choices (OECD, 2023). Another significant obstacle lies in unequal citizenship laws, which also severely limit women’s mobility. To make matters worse, in 18 countries, women are still legally restricted from seeking employment without their husband’s consent, significantly impeding their economic independence and professional pursuits (Fleury, 2016).

  • Employment

The employment landscape for female migrant workers is a complex terrain marked by numerous hurdles, encompassing legal constraints, social isolation, and economic disparities. Domestic work, a realm often overlooked by employment laws, stands as a stark example of these challenges. Migrant domestic workers, hidden from public view, are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, a situation exacerbated by their social isolation and lack of awareness about their rights. The absence of legal safeguards perpetuates their vulnerability, creating a cycle of exploitation within private spheres (Feury, 2016).  Adding to these struggles are gender-biased citizenship laws, which impose additional restrictions on female migrants’ mobility. Outdated laws in various countries limit women’s ability to work without their husband’s permission, further curtailing their independence and access to employment opportunities (Feury, 2016). These difficulties often extend further into the host countries. Firstly, migrant women exhibit higher rates of unemployment compared to migrant men or local women, even as an increasing number of women migrate for employment. In OECD countries, migrant women from non-OECD countries have alarmingly low employment rates, with less than 60 percent of them, between the ages of 15 and 64, securing employment in 2004 (OECD, 203). These disparities are rooted in a multitude of factors, including difficulties in having their professional credentials recognized abroad, and language, racial, or cultural barriers. Gender discrimination and xenophobia compound these challenges, leading to underemployment or unemployment for migrant women. Migrant women face double discrimination as both women and refugees, often relegated to the lowest-paying jobs and encountering issues like isolation, abuse, or sexual violence (Feury, 2016). Stereotypes and gender roles perpetuated by employers in destination countries result in a misuse of skills, gender-specific employment opportunities, and discriminatory practices. Additionally, migrant women are more likely to face delayed or partial payment of wages, exacerbating their economic vulnerabilities (Ghosh, 2009).


Case study: Ukraine

In the wake of the Russian war of aggression on Ukraine, a unique refugee situation has emerged. Generally speaking, women have been underrepresented in the refugee crisis in Europe. For example, during the 2015–17 influx, only about 30% of asylum seekers were women (OECD, 2023). However, the general military drafting of male Ukrainian citizens in the war between the ages of 18 to 60 has affected this number heavily. An OECD report states that roughly 70% of all Ukrainian refugees are women (OECD, 2023).  Oksana Kononchuk, a female refugee who fled Ukraine with her daughter in March 2022, stated during an interview that the primary determining factor leading to her decision to leave her home was the safety of her daughter. She said: “I just imagine that the next day it might happen in Kyiv and I think there is my child here. And I can risk my own life, but I have no right to risk the life of my child” (Appendix). Refugees like Kononchuk are confronted with substantial obstacles that impede their full integration into the host countries. The lack of affordable childcare services poses a significant barrier, dissuading many working-age adults, especially mothers without partners, from participating in the labour force. Additionally, there is a prevalent risk of gender-based violence, leading some countries to investigate cases of human trafficking. Furthermore, the breakdown of family units and uncertainty regarding family reunification deepen the levels of instability for Ukrainian refugee women. This uncertainty hampers their ability to plan for long-term displacement, language learning, or expanding social networks, hindering their labour market integration at appropriate skill levels. Despite these adversities, there are some promising aspects to the integration of Ukrainian refugee women: they often possess higher educational attainment levels compared to other refugee groups, and they even exceed overall averages in both Ukraine and the EU. Moreover, their entry into the labour market seems to have been relatively faster, facilitated by immediate labour market access in OECD countries after registration, a privilege not commonly extended to other asylum seekers. Oksana Kononchuk now works for the University of Amsterdam, teaching its very first Ukrainian language class. In this unique situation, the overwhelming number of female refugees highlights both the resilience and vulnerability of these Ukrainian women. While their relatively higher numbers might make initial employment marginally easier, the long-term consequences of this displacement, particularly regarding their skills and socio-economic stability, remain deeply precarious. 



This article sought to provide a conclusive overview of the gendered perspectives of forced displacement. The theoretical framework sheds light on the nuanced motivations guiding female migration, emphasizing the pivotal role of family, safety, and escaping gender-based violence. The examination of incentives, legal restrictions, and employment underscores the multifaceted hurdles encountered by migrant women. The case study of Ukrainian refugee women serves as a strong reminder of the complexities involved. The overwhelming number of female refugees and the high socioeconomic and educational standing of these women present a unique case. These findings indicate that further research must take individual cases of migration into account, thereby contributing to a more individualistic and intersectional approach to understanding and addressing migrant women’s experiences and challenges. Addressing the gendered aspects of migration not only ensures more inclusive and equitable policies,  but it also fosters a more compassionate and just society, where the experiences and contributions of all migrants, particularly women, are valued and supported.



Interview with Oksana Kononchuk 

Held on September 27th, 2023

Interviewer: Mira Nerpel 


Nerpel: So, I’m working as a researcher for an NGO and I’m writing an article about migration and how maybe women experience it differently than men, because sadly, this topic isn’t really well researched yet. So could you briefly share your name, where you come from, when and why you left Ukraine, and how you came to Amsterdam? 


Kononchuk: Well, my name is Oksana, my surname is Kononchuk, and I’m from Ukraine. We fled Kyiv on the 1st of March, 2022, it was the sixth day of the war. And me with my husband and my daughter, My husband is Iranian, so he was allowed to leave the country. And first, we went to Slovakia, and we stayed there for several days, and then we decided to go somewhere further, to a more distant place, because it was at the beginning of the war, and it was, you know, the situation was so difficult, and we thought that war may come to other countries and that we left Kyiv, but maybe the country we were in wasn’t safe as well. So we decided to go to a more distant country, and we came to Amsterdam and settled there. And now I’m staying here with my daughter.


Nerpel: Can I ask you what, because you said you left on the sixth day?  What can I ask? What made you decide that day would give you the final push to say this is not safe to stay anymore?


Kononchuk: Yes, you know, when the war started, me and my daughter didn’t want to go anywhere, and we were very persistent on that. But my husband insisted very much, you know, strongly that we had to go, we should go. 


And as I said, he’s Iranian, and when he was a teenager, there was a war in Iran, there was war between Iran and Iraq. And he, his brothers, sisters, they witnessed war. And they had an imagination of what war is. 


And so all of them were making a lot of pressure on me. They would continuously say that I didn’t know what war was, that I was risking myself, risking my daughter’s life and so on. And they just, they were calling every day and they insisted that we had to go. But again, me and my daughter, we didn’t want to go. People were leaving and leaving and leaving here from the first day. And some people started to go away even before the war started because of our rumors that the war would start and so on. But still we wanted to stay, me and my daughter we wanted to stay. But then, the last days of February, the first day of March, Russian troops, they started to bomb Kharkiv. And they were on TV all the time, in their youth. 


They were showing the bombing of Kharkiv and it looked really very awful, very frightening.And when I saw the bombing of Kharkiv, I could frighten myself. I just imagine that the next day it might happen in Kyiv and I think there is my child here. And I can risk my own life, but I have no right to risk life for my child. And that was the first thing. And then I remember that Kyiv became the empty city suddenly. There are not so many people in Kyiv and shops where becoming empty. And it frightened me as well, because I was worried how I could give food to my child, if all the shops were closed and there wouldn’t be a way to get any food. 


Nerpel: So, you came here to Amsterdam eventually. Can I ask what your experience was like from the day you decided to leave Ukraine to this day? How were you greeted here and welcomed?


Kononchuk: We came to Amsterdam on the 14th of March, and we came to the train station and everywhere there were signs to show the route, so it was very easy to find the place where all the Ukrainians where gathering. There was hot food and toys for the children. And there was a woman greeting us and she told us “Stay calm you are safe now!”. And then from there we could decide if we wanted to stay here or go somewhere else but we wanted to stay here, we didn’t want to leave. We were taken to a hostel for the first few months. It was rather comfortable but the difficulty was we only had breakfast and dinner but no breakfast. Most people they came with children, so of course we wanted to give our children a warm meal when they came back from school. We were not allowed to make food in the rooms. So, we had to do something about it. There were volunteers who were bringing food almost every day, mostly for children. And I was very surprised that most of the volunteers were Russians. And they wanted to help because they were against the war. After a month we were given bikes, and I remember I met a volunteer to pick up the bike and we started to talk. I asked where she was from and she said in a quiet voice that she was Russian. This was difficult for her to say, as she was ashamed of it. And I saw the pain in her eyes and I realized that it is a painful situation not just for Ukrainians but also for Russians who are against this war. She said, you know it’s so awful that we can’t realise what is going on.


Nerpel: Did you at some point, here but also in Slovakia and your way here, did you ever feel like you were treated differently because you are a woman?


Kononchuk: Here in the Netherlands, I didn’t notice, no. There were more female refugees than men. For me, it’s easier to find work for women than for men here in Amsterdam. And in the place I live, if there is a family with mother, father and children, I see that the mother is working and the father is staying home with the children. 


Nerpel: Oh, ok so very much the untraditional role models. 


Kononchuk: I don’t know why it’s like that but that is what I see mostly. 


Nerpel: During your stay here so far, were there situations where you felt frustrated or worried, where you would have hoped there was more support? Or even laws or policies that could have made this difficult time a bit easier?


Kononchuk: You know at least me, my daughter, our friends, our neighbors, I would say we are rather comfortable. First of all, we are safe. We receive a lot of support. Mental support. Financial support. It’s less than for example in Germany or Belgium, but you can dwell on it. We have volunteers who organise activities with children and all that. So, I think we are rather lucky.


Nerpel: So, these are already all the questions I had. If there is anything you would like to add then you are more than welcome to. 


Kononchuk: I mean yes, I have heard other stories as well of people who are really not comfortable and who are not satisfied with their situation. There are Facebook groups called Ukrainians in the Netherlands. There you read a lot about people that are just not happy with where they are but I think also the ones that are satisfied of course don’t really post on it.


Nerpel: I am really grateful that you shared. I know it’s such a sensitive topic and I believe your perspective in this research will really have a huge impact. 


Kononchuk: You are welcome. 



Baudassé, T., &      Bazillier, R. (2014). Gender inequality and emigration: push factor or selection process? International Economics 139 (October): 19–47.


Fleury, A. (2016). Understanding Women and migration: A literature review. Knomad Working Paper 8. 


Ghosh, J. (2009). Migration and gender empowerment: recent trends and emerging issues. Human Development Research Paper 04


Lam, T. &      Hoang, L. (2010). Effects of international migration on families left behind. Civil Society Days.


Nhengu, D. (2022). Covid-19 and female migrants: policy challenges and multiple vulnerabilities. Comparative Migration Studies, 10 (23).  


OCED. (2023, May 30). What are the integration challenges of Ukrainian refugee women? Policy responses.

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