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Why Ukraine's birth rate drop amid Russian war is concerning

Anastasia Shepeleva
October 5, 2023

Even before Russia's full-scale invasion, alarmingly low birth and fertility rates have restricted Ukraine's population growth. The war has drastically exacerbated the situation, and experts have called for action.

A mother hold two babies dressed in matching white onesies with teddy bear ears
Ukraine's population was shrinking even before Russia's full-scale invasion in 2021. As the war continues, projections are even more worryingImage: Pavlo Gonchar/ZUMAPRESS/picture alliance

About 93,500 infants were born in Ukraine in the first half of this year, 28% fewer than during the same period in 2021 before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of the country. While the birth rate in Ukraine had already declined over the past decade, the exodus of the country's female population and the security risks linked to the war have had a catastrophic impact.

According to the worst-case scenario estimated by Ella Libanova, director of the Ptoukha Institute for Demography and Social Studies of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, the current population of approximately 37 million could fall to 26 million over the next 10 years. 

Even before the war, the Ukrainian fertility rate was behind the replacement rate, whereby a woman has to give birth to at least 2.1 children on average to keep the population size steady. In 2021, the ratio had fallen to 1.16, dropping by another 25% the following year.

Svitlana Aksyonova, also a researcher at the Ptoukha Institute for Demography and Social Studies, told DW that this decline was more likely a result of the COVID-19 pandemic than the ongoing war. In 2021 alone, there were 86,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus-related deaths.

"Many families decided to postpone having children until a safer epidemiological situation arose," she explained.

A woman sits on a bed, smiling, holding her newborn infant
The low birth rate in Ukraine is due to a number of factors, including security concerns Image: Marko Djurica/REUTERS

Children born abroad not counted

Aksyonova pointed out that the 2022 statistics had not considered children born to Ukrainian refugees abroad. "According to the information available to us, they are not covered by these statistics, nor some of the births in the Russian-occupied territories," she said.

DW asked Ukraine's Ministry of Justice how many Ukrainian children had been born abroad after Russia's full-scale invasion last year but has yet to receive an answer.

Aksyonova said that the effects of the war on Ukraine's birth rate had become much more apparent this year. In the first half of 2023, demographers recorded a 9% decline compared to the same period last year, which was to be expected given the war.

However, she added that it was too soon to tell how the situation would develop after the war. She explained that demographers had devised 50 scenarios of what might happen depending on how the war progressed and how people migrated.

But she doubted there would be a dramatic rise in the birth rate after the war. "We will see a compensatory rise due to offspring being delayed now, but it will be minor," she predicted.

She said that the destruction of infrastructure and homes and pressure on the labor market were major factors but that fewer people would decide to have children because of their trauma. "More and more people believe it would be wrong to bring a child into this cruel world and expose it to such dangers," she said.

Over 6 million Ukrainians have left

At the same time, Aksyonova said, migration was crucial for forecasting the future birth rate. Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, over 6.2 million people have left, primarily women of working age and children. "The longer the war lasts, the more people will choose to stay abroad. One of the scenarios developed assumes that there will be more men than women in certain age groups in the future, considering a significant amount of Ukrainian women will not return to Ukraine," she added.

She said that there were other decisive factors: "Before the war, sociological surveys reported that most people wanted to have more than one child," but whether this was possible depended on security and economic conditions, the housing situation and whether there was faith in the future as well as the government. 

Government action needed

Dmytro Boyarchuk, the director of Ukraine's CAS Center for Social and Economic Research, said that the government should respond to the population decline immediately by implementing appropriate economic reforms, considering that a fall in the working population would strain the pension system.

"Ukrainian refugees have learned that, at times, their work [abroad] is far better paid than it would be in Ukraine. But if Ukraine develops rapidly, there's a chance of convincing Ukrainians to return from abroad," he explained. "However, if our country does not offer interesting, competitive jobs, it will not be able to keep people."

This article was originally written in Ukrainian.

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