By Dr. Megan Dwyer Baumann and Dr. Sonja Kelly
In late February 2022, Ukrainians left their homes as Russia invaded, preparing to flee to neighboring countries like Poland, Moldova, and Romania. To date, there have been nearly 12 million border crossings out of Ukraine since the start of the war, with an estimated 90 percent of these women and their dependents. Were these women’s financial services adequate and trustworthy to meet Ukrainian women’s financial needs? New research from Women’s World Banking indicates that while financial services were not overwhelmingly helpful to Ukrainian women refugees fleeing their homes, financial system engagement helped Ukrainian women refugees to navigate new incomes associated with workforce participation and assisted with financial management in receiving countries. There is room for improvement as these women continue to rebuild their lives and recover what they lost.
Preparing to leave was a task unique to women and their dependents, as working age men were unable to leave the country. Women from every region of Ukraine scraped together what cash they had available in their homes and went to nearby ATM machines to withdraw their savings in hryvnia, the local currency. Some converted their money to euros or U.S. dollars, but most prioritized other tasks—packing their own bags and the bags of the children or older parents they would travel with, locating and arranging buses or trains on which they could travel, and securing prescription medication to last until the next time they could reach a pharmacy. Most said there was not enough time to prepare.
In moments like these, no one should have to think about the reliability of their financial services. Ukrainian women, 81 percent of whom have their own account and 68 percent of whom have a debit or credit card, should have been able to flee their homes with just a debit card and passport. Women’s World Banking research shows instead that their lack of trust in the accessibility of their money in the countries to which they were traveling led them to withdraw funds in full and travel with large sums of cash. While their ATM cards and credit cards would have worked, their fear of being without their money constrained their choices to cash.
For many refugees this cash-centric strategy was problematic. In the early days of the invasion, Ukrainian refugees reported being unable to exchange hryvnia for euros because of banking sector concerns of hryvnia instability. Traveling with cash can also be a threat to refugees’ personal security. Nadya had her cash stolen from her and later opened up a new bank account to increase her financial security in the receiving country. Others opened bank accounts to receive wages, set up businesses, or send money back to family in Ukraine.
Fortunately, these refugees were offered a path to account access in the receiving countries to which they travelled if their Ukrainian bank accounts proved insufficient. The European Banking Authority issued a statement in late April authorizing banks to use alternative forms of identification or delay know-your-customer processes altogether for Ukrainian refugees. While refugees we surveyed encountered some language challenges, those who wanted to were able to open accounts to help them manage their finances as they temporarily re-settled in new communities. Iryna, a hairdresser in Ukraine, opened a bank account to purchase supplies and receive payments from her customers in her temporary salon chair in Romania.
Financial sector access is only as useful as the ways it enables people to meet life needs. Our research showed significantly decreased financial resilience in Ukrainian women refugees compared to a survey of Ukrainians just a year prior. In 2021, before the war, 58 percent of Ukrainian women said it would be either very difficult or somewhat difficult to come up with 1/20 GNI per capita in the next 30 days. This year, 79 percent of Ukrainian women refugees Women’s World Banking surveyed said it would be very difficult or somewhat difficult to come up with the funds.
Ukrainian women’s lower financial resilience makes rebuilding even more important—and this is where financial services can take a leading role. In Women’s World Banking’s sample taken in Moldova and Romania, 89 percent of women refugees indicated an intention to return to Ukraine. They are worried about costs associated with the return, including the journey back, rebuilding their homes, and managing day-to-day expenses that may be higher than they were previously. Accounts for day-to-day money management, credit for large expenses, savings and investments for long-term planning, and payments instruments to leverage social networks will all be critical to rebuilding. The financial system has a responsibility to Ukrainian women refugees to prove its will be availability and usefulness in times of crisis.