Several more foreign NGOs stop work in Afghanistan after Taliban ban on women staff

Afghan women chant slogans to protest against the ban on university education for women, in Kabul on 22 December, 2022. A small group of Afghan women staged a defiant protest in Kabul on 22 December against a Taliban order banning them from universities, an activist said, adding that some were arrested.AFP

Several foreign aid groups announced on Sunday they were suspending their operations in Afghanistan after the country's Taliban rulers ordered all NGOs to stop women staff from working.

Their announcement prompted warnings from international officials and from NGOs that humanitarian aid would be hard hit.

"We cannot effectively reach children, women and men in desperate need in Afghanistan without our female staff," said Save the Children, the Norwegian Refugee Council and CARE in a joint statement.

"Whilst we gain clarity on this announcement, we are suspending our programmes, demanding that men and women can equally continue our lifesaving assistance in Afghanistan."

The International Rescue Committee, which provides emergency response in health, education and other areas and employs 3,000 women across Afghanistan, also said it was suspending services.

"For IRC, our ability to deliver services rely on female staff at all levels of our organization," the New York-based group said in a statement. "If we are not allowed to employ women, we are not able to deliver to those in need."

The ban is the latest blow against women's rights in Afghanistan since the Taliban reclaimed power last year.

Less than a week ago, the hardline Islamists also barred women from attending universities, prompting global outrage and protests in some Afghan cities.

The economy ministry, which issued the ban on Saturday, threatened to suspend the operating licences of aid organisations that failed to stop women from working.

The ministry said it had received "serious complaints" that women working in NGOs were not observing a proper Islamic dress code, a charge also used by authorities to justify banning university education.

Karen Decker, the US charge d'affaires to Afghanistan, warned that the Taliban's decision would lead to starvation.

"As a representative of the largest donor of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, I feel I have the right to an explanation on how the Taliban intend to prevent women and children from starving, when women are no longer allowed to distribute assistance to other women and children," Decker tweeted Sunday in multiple languages.

The UN chief's deputy special representative for Afghanistan, Ramiz Alakbarov, told AFP that the ban will impede aid delivery to millions of people and also have a devastating impact on the country's dilapidated economy.

"It will be very difficult to continue and deliver humanitarian assistance in an independent and fair way because women's participation is very important," Alakbarov said, adding that the UN will seek to get the ban reversed.

Germany's Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock on Sunday also called for a "clear reaction from the international community".

And the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation called the ban "self-defeating and disserving the interests of Afghan people," and called on the Taliban to reverse its decision.

'Very critical'

At a meeting of humanitarian officials on Sunday, there was no decision over whether all NGOs would suspend operations, according to Alakbarov, who added that more discussions would be held.

He acknowledged that the ban would impact the UN's operations as it distributes aid through a vast network of NGOs. It would also further pummel the country's economy already in a tailspin since the withdrawal of foreign forces in August last year.

"All assistance which is being provided to Afghanistan in this period is very critical, both for the nutritional security and to the job security of the people," he said.

Afghanistan's economic crisis has worsened since the Taliban seized power, which led to Washington freezing billions of dollars of assets and foreign donors cutting aid.

Dozens of organisations work across remote areas of Afghanistan and many employ women who rely on their income to feed their families, according to Alakbarov.

'Hell for women'

Such is the case for Shabana, 24, who told AFP she was the only earning member in her family.

"If I lose my job, my family of 15 members will die of hunger," said Shabana, who has worked for a foreign NGO for decades and gave only one name.

"While the world is celebrating the arrival of the new year, Afghanistan has become a hell for women."

The government struck a defiant note Sunday in the face of international criticism.

Responding to the comment by the US charge d'affaires, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted: "We do not allow anyone to talk rubbish or make threats regarding the decisions of our leaders under the title of humanitarian aid."

It remained unclear whether the directive impacted foreign staff at NGOs.

The international community has made respecting women's rights a sticking point in negotiations with the Taliban government for its recognition and the restoration of aid.

In addition to the ban on women attending universities, there is already an existing secondary school ban for girls.

Women have also been pushed out of many government jobs, prevented from travelling without a male relative and ordered to cover up outside of the home, ideally with a burqa, and not allowed into parks.