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The Taliban again bans Afghan women aid workers. Here's how the U.N. responded

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees workers prepare to distribute non-food items to women at UNHCR office in Kandahar on March 8, 2022. The Taliban has demanded that Afghan women no longer work for the UN or NGOs.
Javed Tanveer/AFP via Getty Images
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees workers prepare to distribute non-food items to women at UNHCR office in Kandahar on March 8, 2022. The Taliban has demanded that Afghan women no longer work for the UN or NGOs.

On April 11, the United Nations instructed its national staff in Afghanistan — more than 3,000 men and women — to not report to offices "for their own safety, especially for our female staff," according to spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric. About 400 Afghan women work for the U.N.

The decision came after the Taliban authorities told U.N. officials in early April that no Afghan woman would be permitted to work for the U.N. in Afghanistan "with immediate effect."

"Several U.N. national female personnel have already experienced restrictions on their movements, including harassment, intimidation and detention," an April 5 U.N.memo stated, prompting the order from the organization asking staff to stay at home.

This latest move is yet another blow to efforts to deliver aid during what U.N. deputy special representative for Afghanistan Ramiz Alabaro has characterized as the "world's largest humanitarian crisis," with U.N. estimates of nearly 20 million people in Afghanistan facing acute food insecurity – and more than 6.1 million of them on the brink of famine-like conditions.

Humanitarian groups say the Taliban decrees are having a disastrous impact in a country that was dependent on aid even before the Taliban takeover in August 2021 that resulted in international governments halting aid to the country over the fear of funding a terrorist state.

Then came the Taliban decree of December 2022 that banned Afghan women working for non-governmental agencies, further hobbling aid efforts. In regions where the ban has been strictly imposed, it has impeded the ability of aid workers to register and verify cases of families that need aid. Women employees are critical, particularly for projects involving households run by women, due to the Taliban's gender separation rules.

The Taliban's reputation for human rights violations and terrorism has isolated it on a global stage, contributing to the decline of the Afghan economy, triggering unemployment, poverty and widespread starvation.

"Afghanistan continues to face the highest prevalence of insufficient food consumption globally with 92 percent of households struggling to meet their basic needs," was the assessment in the March 2023 situation report by the World Food Programme.

For the U.N., the impact of the Taliban ban began with the first "no women" decree in December. "The absence of women in our team can be directly felt in the effectiveness of our work," said Mohammad, a U.N. employee. NPR is only using his first name because he fears repercussions from the Taliban.

After that December ban, the U.N.'s female employees could not work (though some administrative staff continued to work). In some cases, they were replaced with male colleagues, Mohammad said. "But as men, we aren't allowed to go inside homes with female members in the absence of their mahram [a male guardian]. It makes our work very difficult if there is no mahram as in the cases of families with women heads," he said, adding that the reach and productivity of his team had dropped by "over 50 percent" since the initial ban was announced in December. And now, with the ban reinforced by the Taliban, the U.N. has asked the men to stay home, too.

Dujarric says all the Afghan nationals are essential. "Afghan women's meaningful participation is essential to reach safely and effectively populations in need with principled and quality assistance," he said. "Afghan women will not be replaced by men."

More than 20 women employed in various capacities were part of the regional UN office where Mohammad works. NPR reached out to several Afghan women employees of the U.N. who confirmed that they had been benched but said they did not want to elaborate on the extent of ban and how it impacted their work.

Mohammad speculates that local Taliban leaders in rural communities have supported the ban with the hope of inserting themselves into the aid distribution efforts. "Even before the Taliban imposed their ban, we received a letter from [the] head of the districts, asking us to not go to homes with women without mahrams. In our experience, some Taliban elders and heads of the councils in the districts support the ban because they remove the women and involve themselves to control the aid we distribute," he said.

"They are creating new challenges for all Afghans just so they can take advantage of the situation and make demands from the global community" he said – those demands including unfreezing Afghan assets and other restrictions some U.N. member countries put in place. "If the international community accepts their demands now, they will only increase their demands more and keep the Afghan public as hostages," he said.

Other NGOs working in Afghanistan have experienced similar obstacles. The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), which provides humanitarian assistance such as camp management, shelter, protection and education services to displaced communities, had suspended various projects across the country after the Taliban's ban on women employees in December. They simply did not have the staff to carry out these programs without calling on their female employees.

While NRC worked with local authorities to negotiate certain exemptions for women in some localities, about a third of their staff and several key projects that work directly within vulnerable communities in displacement camps remain in a limbo.

"Many of our projects still remain on hold in areas where we have not been able to secure local permissions or national exemptions for women to return to work,"said Becky Roby, NRC's advocacy manager in Kabul.

"The scale of our operations has reduced dramatically since the ban, which ultimately means that people are not receiving the assistance they need," she told NPR.

In a statement released on Thursday, the Taliban has dismissed these concerns as an "internal issue of Afghanistan."

"This decision does not mean that there is discrimination, or creates obstacles to the functions of the United Nations; on the contrary, considering the religious and cultural interests, we are committed to all the rights of our people," Zabihullah Mujahid, the spokesperson of the Taliban, stated.

Mujahid blamed the international organization for the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan through the restriction on Afghan banks, freezing of Afghan foreign reserves and the multiple sanctions against the Taliban. "Afghans," Mujahid said, "have the capacity to stand on their own feet."

In fact, the Taliban's increasing restriction on women's freedoms, specifically their exclusion of women from the economy, has resulted in anestimated loss of $1 billion to the Afghan economy, according to the UNDP. The International Labour Organization documented a 25% drop in women's employment levels by late 2022, attributed to the restriction on women's work. Additionally, a World Bank report observed that women-owned businesses were worst affected by the flailing economy and restrictions, forcing nearly 42% of them to temporarily close, all of which contributed to the reduction of Afghanistan's GDP.

"The population is still astoundingly dependent on external assistance to get their basic needs met, so the intensifying restrictions on the operating space for humanitarians is cutting people off from their life lines," Roby points out. "This is not just impacting women, it is hurting the entire population," she adds.

"How will the needs of the population be met in a country with a paralyzed economy without international help" she asks.

Mohammad added in agreement. "We cannot work effectively without our sisters, and the Taliban are taking advantage of this," he says.

Ruchi Kumar is a journalist who reports on conflict, politics, development and culture in India and Afghanistan. She tweets at @RuchiKumar

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ruchi Kumar