UN and top aid officials slam Afghan rulers’ NGO ban for women

A child is vaccinated against polio during a polio mobillisation campaign in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
© UNICEF/Frank Dejongh
A child is vaccinated against polio during a polio mobillisation campaign in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

UN and top aid officials slam Afghan rulers’ NGO ban for women

Women

Top UN agency officials and civil society organization heads joined forces on Thursday to urge Afghanistan’s de facto authorities to reverse their ban on women working for NGOs that provide aid relief.

“Banning women from humanitarian work has immediate life-threatening consequences for all Afghans,” they insisted.

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Some aid programmes have already had to stop temporarily, owing to a lack of female staff, at a time when more than 28 million people in Afghanistan need “assistance to survive” the brutal winter, economic collapse and the risk of famine, the agency principals noted.

In a joint statement that followed Saturday’s reported decree by the Taliban that Afghan women must stop working for NGOs, the top UN officials insisted female staff were “key to every aspect of the humanitarian response in Afghanistan”.

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In particular, this was because “they have access to populations that their male colleagues cannot reach”, they explained, while also insisting that Afghan women humanitarians “save lives”.

Their work must continue, the UN and NGO principals said, as “teachers, nutrition experts, team leaders, community health workers, vaccinators, nurses, doctors, and heads of organizations”.

Backsliding on progress

Echoing the message of the UN Secretary-General that the NGO ban will undermine the work of all organizations in Afghanistan in helping its most vulnerable communities, the head of the UN Development Programme (UNDP), Achim Steiner, said that the latest restriction would “accelerate Afghanistan’s backslide” into poverty.

The damage could take decades to reverse, the UNDP Administrator said, as he added that women’s work in Afghanistan amounted to over $1 billion in household income.

“Removing women from the public sphere of education and livelihoods could result in an immediate and significant loss to millions of Afghans in poor households that are already facing severe hardships,” he maintained.

A million women and girls face aid cuts

UN refugee agency head Filippo Grandi also condemned the Taliban decree.

“This ban must be lifted”, Mr. Grandi insisted, noting that more than 500 women staff work with his agency’s 19 NGO partners in Afghanistan, where they serve nearly one million women and girls.

“The most recent restrictions will force the UNHCR to temporarily stop critical activities in support of Afghan people, especially women and children,” he added.

The latest directive also risks pushing more families to flee across the borders as refugees, he continued, as he explained that women NGO workers across Afghanistan’s 34 provinces have been “at the forefront of efforts to find solutions for Afghans affected by four decades of conflict and persecution, including millions of refugees and internally displaced people”.

A nurse stands in the neonatal ward at a hospital in Gardez, Afghanistan.
© UNICEF/Mihalis Gripiotis
A nurse stands in the neonatal ward at a hospital in Gardez, Afghanistan.

Female staff had helped UNHCR reach over six million Afghans since August 2021, said Mr. Grandi. “With so many other restrictions on women, this new decree will have a devastating impact on Afghanistan’s population.”

According to UNHCR, some 3.4 million people are displaced inside Afghanistan, along with another 2.9 million refugees living outside the country.

Rights abuses called out

In a strongly worded statement, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) also warned that the Taliban’s latest decree jeopardised many basic rights in Afghanistan.

Since March, Afghanistan’s de facto authorities have barred an estimated one million girls from attending high school over the past year, and on 20 December, female students learned that they could no longer go to university.

This latest order forbidding women from working in NGOs “will not only deprive them and their families of income but will also completely erase their only social life and deny them an opportunity to contribute to the country’s development,” the CEDAW experts said.

A female Afghan volunteer engaged in a UNHCR-supported education project in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
© UNHCR/Oxygen Film Studio (AFG
A female Afghan volunteer engaged in a UNHCR-supported education project in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

Nation jeopardised ‘for a generation’

“Their exclusion also means millions of women and girls could be left out of the humanitarian response, which is critically important to the country where about six million people are at risk of famine.”

Warning that the move would “jeopardise the entire country for generation”, the experts also called for the immediate release of women reportedly arrested during protests that were triggered by the university ban.

“With the latest ban on universities, the country is now excluding half of its population from normal schooling, creating one of the world’s biggest gender gaps,” they said.

Solutions must be found: Resident Coordinator

The UN Resident Coordinator in Afghanistan, Ramiz Alakbarov, told reporters at UN Headquarters in New York on Thursday afternoon that the UN relief chief - along with other senior officials - would be heading to the country in the coming days in search of a solution to the crisis over women's participation in relief work and access to education.

He said "certain activities" had already been paused, reiterating that the UN system was fully "committed to the people" of Afghanistan and to full gender equality.

Taliban leaders are being engaged already at the "highest possible level" by UN leadership on the ground there, and Mr. Alakbarov stated that an agreement had already been struck with Taliban leadership in the health sector, so that there will be "no barrier" to women continuing with their lifesaving work there.

He emphasized that delivery of health services and other vital aid, would not be possible without women staff members, and it was "practically impossible" to launch any new programmes without female participation.

With more than 28 million Afghans in need, "we need to dissolve bottlenecks to address needs as systematically as we can", he added.

It is essential to explain the consequences of the Taliban's restrictions on women and girls to their leadership, "and work on the solution". He highlighted that it would be impossible, for example, to offer protection services to women, without women on staff, or reach millions of women in need, using only male workers.