Nachricht | Gender Relations - War / Peace - Migration / Flight - Eastern Europe - Ukraine Crisis - Sorgende Stadt Social Reproduction in the War on Ukraine

How Ukrainian refugees build networks of support and solidarity in the face of the Russian invasion



Oksana Dutchak,

Eine Frau mit zwei kleinen Kindern aus der Region Donezk sitzt in einem Evakuierungszug auf der Flucht vor vorrückenden russischen Truppen, 6. August 2022.
Bewohner*innen der Region Donezk in einem Evakuierungszug auf der Flucht vor vorrückenden russischen Truppen, 6. August 2022. Foto: IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

Approximately 8 million Ukrainians have fled their country in search of safety since the beginning of the Russian invasion in February 2022.[1] According to a report from the UNHCR, approximately 87 percent of these refugees are women and children, while a closer look at the figures reveals that roughly 35 percent or approximately 2.7 million of them are children.

Oksana Dutchak is the deputy director of the Center for Social and Labour Research in Kyiv, where she studies work and working conditions as well as gender inequalities.

Due to the Ukrainian state’s decision to restrict men’s cross-border mobility, the current, war-induced displacement is extremely gendered and leads to the reconfiguration of labour in separated families. The structures of gender and economic inequality place a disproportionate share of reproductive labour on women in all societies, including in Ukraine. However, in the case of Ukrainian refugees, it seems more appropriate to speak not about this disproportionate burden, but about the phenomenon of what could be called “enforced single motherhood”, whereby the entire responsibility of reproductive labour falls on women’s shoulders.

This article explores how Ukrainian refugees manage reproductive labour in the context of enforced single motherhood, and the role of informal support networks in particular. While being deeply gendered and depoliticized, these networks offer women time, a crucial resource for social reproduction. How are these networks of support (re)created in and after displacement? How do they structure the lives and experiences of Ukrainian refugees? Which structures of inequality stand behind them and how can these informal networks be evaluated politically?

Social Reproduction in Capitalism

The ideal model of capitalism presupposes that people earn money to sustain the reproduction of themselves and their families. However, in deeply unequal societies characterized by poverty wages and high unemployment, many people cannot rely on paid employment alone to ensure their social reproduction. Moreover, as Marxist-feminist theories of social reproduction have explored, this ideal model ideologically and practically ignores the part of social reproduction that requires reproductive labour, namely housework and care work, without which individuals, families, communities, capitalist production, and society as a whole could not function.

The ongoing debates within Marxist theory around social reproduction are beyond the scope of this article, but the fundamental point that people obtain additional resources for social reproduction from state intervention, charity, subsistence agriculture, and informal networks proves indispensable. Ultimately, the puzzle of social reproduction in capitalist society is impossible to solve without paying attention to extra-market relations.

All in all, social reproduction in modern societies rests on the shaky (im)balance between material resources and time, upheld by capitalist and patriarchal structures. On the one hand, material resources for social reproduction of the working classes are obtained predominantly from paid work, which requires time to exercise one’s labour power. These are supplemented by material resources from other activities, some of which also require time, like subsistence agriculture or side-jobs. To “get” that time, together with time for reproductive labour, other sources are used. More often than not, state intervention and informal networks are the most stable and thus play the dominant role.

Unlike state intervention in the form of care infrastructure, informal networks remain obscured behind the curtain of private life. Although their role is immense, it is also naturalized and depoliticized. In the context of war, displacement, and policies that enforce single motherhood among Ukrainian refugees, the role of informal networks becomes even more prominent than it already was.

Stitching Up Gaps in Care

Back in pre-war “normality”, Ukrainian women were integrated into the local (predominantly public) care system despite persistent gender inequality. This system, however, has been worn down by years of neoliberal austerity. Presented as an “optimization” of kindergartens, schools, hospitals, and other care facilities against the backdrop of chronic underfunding, reforms of care infrastructures created a feminized cohort of working poor as well as recurring gaps in access to and functioning of care institutions, thus deepening gender inequality.

As in other societies, these care gaps are managed within nuclear or extended families, channelled through personal networks of support and local communities. Being gendered and deeply personalized (creating yet another form of inequality, particularly for single mothers), these networks of support serve to “stitch up” the holes in the fabric of social reproduction. However, with the onset of war and displacement, women were further deprived of support from care institutions and networks.

Displaced across the border and forced into single motherhood, Ukrainian refugees are often unable to fully integrate into local care institutions. This is due to both migration trends and structural problems, such as the lack of capacities and workers, shorter working hours, etc. In many cases, they are faced with the same care gaps that were created in Ukraine by local versions of neoliberal austerity.[2] At the same time, Ukrainian refugees have to manage different additional tasks related to bureaucracy, paid labour, health issues and their own integration into a hosting society.

From my conversations with Ukrainian refugees, it became obvious that the lack of support and the inability to find and establish a care network can make it nearly impossible to manage in enforced single motherhood, and sometimes even led mothers to return to Ukraine with their children.

Although conditions vary from location to location, on the whole, Ukrainian refugees have to manage the gaps of local care institutions on their own. Alternatively, they can look for additional support either from volunteer initiatives or traditional informal networks. However, the former option is sporadic and can provide women only with short-term and sometimes unpredictable assistance in reproductive labour, and volunteers can care for their children at best several hours per week — if they are still active at all.

While traditional, informal networks often remain the only answer, the disruption of the invasion means that these networks do not flourish automatically. “Spinning” (networking) skills and reciprocal usage of these networks are embedded in female gender roles and socialization, but an understanding of spinning circumstances and patterns highlights both how important they are and which structures of inequality stand behind them.

Transferring and Mobilizing Networks of Support

The most predictable strategy, used by Ukrainian refugees with children, is to flee the war together with friends and relatives in order to transfer the fragments of their existing support networks across the border. Due to governmental restrictions, mostly the female part of the women’s networks are the ones crossing the borders: mothers, sisters, and female friends. They often settle together or nearby and are more or less actively involved in domestic and care labour, supporting those in enforced single motherhood. These transfers are relatively planned (although many decisions are made in a state of emergency) and reproduce the accustomed patterns of care.

The most “natural” refugees’ care arrangements involve women from a family’s older generation. In Ukraine, as in many other societies, grandmothers often play an active role, sometimes becoming a child’s primary caretaker, compensating for the lack of affordable childcare options before the age of three, or become the second carer in single-mother households.

This “natural” arrangement in Ukrainian society rests on structures of capitalist and patriarchal inequality. On the one hand, due to low wages, many families cannot survive with one wage earner, while another adult (the mother of a child in the vast majority of cases) is on childcare leave. This pushes both parents onto the labour market and forces them to look for alternative care options.

Traditional gender roles, a relatively low pension age (60–65 years), very low pensions (115 euro per month on average), discrimination against older women on the labour market, and unaffordable housing that forces different generations to cohabitate are all factors that make a grandmother the most common carer from one’s own extended family. Fleeing with such pre-existing networks and care arrangements is the most predictable and stable.

Other strategies involve the mobilization and partial spinning of existing networks. First of all, the existing cross-border networks influence women’s decisions regarding the destination to which to flee. In this case, destinations of the enforced single mothers are adjusted according to potential networks of support in host countries. As they flee, women will often choose to go to a country and a city where someone they know is already based there, and settle in their household or at least nearby in order to be able to access permanent or sporadic assistance with reproductive labour.

All the possible networks can be involved here, starting with close relatives and friends, and ending with relatively distant acquaintances. For example, one woman with whom I spoke chose her destination because of her mother’s female friend living nearby. Another was heading to a place where her ex-colleague was living with her family. In the end, this strategy can work or fail in the sense that here we are not speaking about the actual, but about potential networks of support. Care arrangements can be negotiated in advance or they can be just assumed, but they can fail to work in both cases.

Network transfers can also go together with network spinning, when women flee the war together with those who have not provided active support in their care labour before, but agreed to do so. Sometimes these transfers take the shape of unaccustomed cooperation between different families with children, when loosely related families, without previous care arrangements, depart and settle together to support each other. Exchange of resources can happen within these cooperation arrangements. For example, one woman can provide time in the form of childcare for both her and another family’s child, and get material support in return from that family.

These cooperative families can be related in different ways — as relatives, friends, acquaintances, neighbours, and even colleagues. In other words, all possible types of networks can also be mobilized. In one case, a woman fled with her husband’s friend and his family. In another, female colleagues with children decided to flee and settle together.

There are cases when such cooperative departures are organized from the outside and pre-designed to provide mutual care arrangement. In one case, a residence was organized for cultural workers with children, and they settled together and supported each other in care provision. In another case, a foreign corporation arranged the departure of its workers to a neighbouring country and settled them in a hotel together. In the end, women continued to work at a local factory branch of this corporation and provided care for each other’s children in shifts.

Although the latter arrangement helps women to deal with their double roles as single carers and workers, it also allows the corporation to deal with the situation without extra expenses. In this case, we can speak of the merging of the profit-oriented approach and a recourse to “natural” solutions, instead of socializing care.

Spinning Webs of Support

In many cases, however, when network transfer or mobilization is not possible, women in enforced single motherhood have to spin such networks from scratch. This spinning is often spatially localized where settlement and care labour are concentrated.

Women refugees meet each other in camps and dormitories where they are accommodated, in long lines when managing paperwork and social payments, in kindergartens, schools and playgrounds, during events, and in social media or chat groups organized for Ukrainian refugees with children. These settings become nodes facilitating mutual recognition and experiences, enabling, shortening, and simplifying precisely the type of connections where reciprocity of care assistance can emerge.

The degree of mutual care can greatly vary in the newly created networks and depends on both women’s needs for assistance and their capacities to provide them in return. For example, in an extreme but not very common case, a woman with a toddler who cannot find a place in local kindergartens but still has or wants to go to integration courses looks for another woman in the same situation to babysit in shifts.

These networks of support are definitely about everyday solidarity and reciprocity. However, this solidarity is not necessarily translated into organized collective efforts to deal with the problems of social reproduction and structural inequality which create them.

Such announcements appear from time to time in local support chats, although it is hard to say to which extent this type of arrangement works. I have not come across such functional cases, and one woman with whom I spoke complained that she tried to organize a similar exchange but did not receive a positive response from other refugee women.

For children in primary schools, the schoolyard becomes the place of meeting and building initial connections that can evolve into networks of support — particularly in cases when separate classes for Ukrainian children are created. It is quite common for women who live nearby to pick up children from school in turns. This can be both a regular practice as well as a way to deal with emergencies, when for some reason a mother cannot make it. The older the children, the less care support women need. Refugees with teenagers use newly created networks for other purposes: psychological support, information exchange, socialization, etc.

When in the same situation, sharing the same experience, and having opportunities to meet and connect in spaces explicitly related to social reproduction, Ukrainian refugees tend to support each other in care. However, gender roles and gender socialization can lead to solidarity networks outside of this community. There are stories of women who were helped by host families — not only in terms of settling, but also sporadically in managing care. One woman said that in her case the main support in care labour came from a female neighbour from Turkey. Having children herself, and knowing what it meant to be with them in a foreign country, the neighbour offered to look after the child so her mother could have some time to care for herself.

The lack of support networks and how this influences women in refuge is another side of the story. From my conversations with Ukrainian refugees, it became obvious that the lack of support and the inability to find and establish a care network can make it nearly impossible to manage in enforced single motherhood, both physically and psychologically, and sometimes even led mothers to return to Ukraine with their children. Although this experience is harder to track, it appears that a fear of detachment from one’s usual networks of support may also play a great role for those who decide to stay in their hometowns with their children or to flee only within the country, still facing the threat of shelling, power cuts, lack of income, and a harsh winter.

Politicizing Care Networks

Triggered by Russian military aggression and shaped by border regulations enforced by the Ukrainian government, displacement influences the initial pool of networks which can be transferred, mobilized, and created to manage enforced single motherhood. However, in most cases, the care part of refugee support is centred on female figures: female relatives, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances.

Structures of gender and economic inequality, gender roles, and socialization naturalize women as carers and the ones responsible for unpaid reproductive labour. This explains the gendered character of previously established, negotiated, assumed, and newly created care arrangements for women escaping the war. Predominantly female networks of support were used in Ukraine before the war, as in many other countries, to fill the gaps created by profit-oriented economies and austerity policies. This continues in refuge.

Structures of class and income inequality may also play a paradoxical role in refugees’ access to care networks. Women who are otherwise in a more privileged position due to income and previously established professional connections abroad often settle immediately or quite fast in a separate apartment and do not need social payments. While this makes the material side of their life far easier, it also partially cuts them off from other Ukrainian refugees: they do not cohabit in camps and dormitories, nor do they have to go to different social institutions on a regular basis. In the end, they may have far fewer possibilities to build connections and create a network of care.

One woman who had lived for five months in a camp with her toddler and then was settled in a dormitory, cohabiting with another family, said she was lucky: unlike her sister, who settled in a separate apartment, she could build connections with other Ukrainian women who could support her in care. Another woman, who works in a research institution and lives separately with her son, said explicitly that she felt isolated and had nobody to back her up.

These networks of support are definitely about everyday solidarity and reciprocity. However, this solidarity is not necessarily translated into organized collective efforts to deal with the problems of social reproduction and structural inequality which create them.

Artificially pushed into the private sphere in modern societies, social reproduction relying on and spinning around naturalized care work, female networks of everyday solidarity and reciprocity possess only a very basic potential for political mobilization. Refugees’ care networks are fragmented and fluid — they bear the burden of vulnerability, rooted in the situation of war and displacement.

Nevertheless, sometimes these networks are used to mobilize Ukrainian refugees in volunteering or political efforts to deal with the war and its consequences: information about protest events in support of Ukraine, or collective efforts needed for humanitarian or military support circulates throughout them. In this respect, they currently play the role of supplementary networks, vaguely centred around different political or cause-oriented initiatives

To which extent these networks can be mobilized to deal with the problems of care infrastructure on the level of policies — either in refuge or back in Ukraine — remains to be seen.

[1] Out of 7.8 million refugees, 4.7 million registered for Temporary Protection or similar national protection schemes in the EU. Additionally, 2.8 million are reported to be in Russia, and an unknown number potentially reaching into the hundreds of thousands reside in various non-EU countries.

[2] Of course, the diversity of policies, resources, and capacities across European care infrastructure is huge. This shapes the experiences of Ukrainian refugees greatly, and in many cases they find themselves in care and social systems that function far better than Ukraine’s did before the war. Nevertheless, in no case does existing infrastructure cover social reproduction entirely.