Several international aid organizations have temporarily suspended their programs in Afghanistan, warning that relief work in the country could crumble without female staff, after the Afghan government barred women from working in local and international humanitarian organizations.
The decree puts the country at risk of losing billions of dollars in critical aid should major international relief organizations close down their operations, relief groups say — funds that are crucial to propping up Afghanistan’s public services and keeping the country’s most vulnerable from the brink of famine amid an economic collapse.
The ban, first announced by the Afghan Ministry of Economy on Saturday, was the latest in a series of measures issued by the Taliban administration that have rolled back women’s rights and effectively erased women from many aspects of public life.
Last week, the Afghan government barred women from attending private and public universities. Both measures were further signs that the government seems set on returning to its hard-line rule of the 1990s.
The organizations Save the Children, the Norwegian Refugee Council and CARE International condemned the ban on Sunday and said that they were suspending their programs while they sought more clarity on the announcement.
“We cannot effectively reach children, women and men in desperate need in Afghanistan without our female staff,” the groups said in a joint statement. “Beyond the impact on delivery of lifesaving assistance, this will affect thousands of jobs in the midst of an enormous economic crisis.”
The Norwegian Refugee Council in Kabul organization employs about 1,500 staff in Afghanistan, one-third of them women. Becky Roby, advocacy manager for the group, said they were “blindsided” by the announcement, which was delivered in a letter over the weekend.
“It has really backed us into a corner,” she said.
Suspending programming was not a choice made lightly, she said, adding that they were concerned about the effect on the populations they serve. But the organization could not accept discrimination against a third of its work force, she said, which would mean that female staff — many of them the breadwinners for their families — could face long-term unemployment.
“We are desperately hoping that there will be a positive resolution to this,” Ms. Roby said. “The outcome that no one wants is for the door to close on international assistance to Afghanistan. That would be a devastating reality for this country.”
The Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan
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- A Team in Exile: The Taliban have barred girls and women from playing sports. The Afghan women’s national soccer team is still feeling the effect of the ban, even from the safety of Australia.
- Inside the Fall of Kabul: In the summer of 2021, the Taliban took the Afghan capital with a speed that shocked the world. Our reporter and photographer witnessed it.
The International Rescue Committee also said it was suspending services and that it was “dismayed and disheartened” by the move. The global aid organization said more than 3,000 of its staff in the country were women, and warned that their exclusion could have “catastrophic consequences for the Afghan people.”
Other humanitarian groups, such as Islamic Relief, also said they would pause non-lifesaving services for the moment.
The top United Nations official in Afghanistan, Ramiz Alakbarov, met on Monday with Mohammad Hanif, the Taliban government’s economy minister, to call for the ban to be reversed, the body’s mission in Afghanistan said on Twitter.
The agency did not give more details, but has said it was profoundly concerned by the order, warning that it violated fundamental rights for women. It was unclear whether the ban applied to the U.N.’s aid agencies.
The International Committee of the Red Cross called the announcement concerning and said that it was still employing about 3,000 female health workers in the country. But it warned that questioning the participation of women would “jeopardize the whole humanitarian action.”
The Afghan government did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the suspensions of aid operations or the U.N. meeting.
In response to criticism from Western donors after the ban was announced, Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban administration, said on Twitter on Sunday that “All those institutions wanting to operate in Afghanistan are obliged to comply with the rules and regulations of our country.”
He added: “We do not allow anyone to talk rubbish or make threats regarding the decisions of our leaders under the title of Humanitarian aid.”
The edict on Saturday also warned that the ministry would revoke the operating licenses of any organizations that did not comply. It was not immediately clear whether the measure applied to only to Afghan women working for aid organizations or to any women working for them.
The new ban came days after a far-reaching decree barred Afghan women from attending universities, devastating a generation of girls who grew up under a Western-backed government that had encouraged them to receive an education. But the collapse of that government last year has led to the rollback of women’s rights in public society under the Taliban administration.
The temporary suspension of humanitarian operations has raised alarms about the potential impact of their termination, if the ban is not reversed. Aid workers say this could effectively sever a lifeline for roughly 28.3 million Afghans — or two-thirds of the population — who will likely rely on some form of assistance next year.
A hunger crisis looms over Afghanistan, with more than six million people facing famine-like levels of food insecurity, the U.N. reported in December.
Even for groups that remained in Afghanistan, the loss of female humanitarian workers could seriously hinder the delivery of aid, particularly to women and children in need. In many parts of the country, as women’s activities have become more restricted, and where many women interact only with men in their families, female humanitarian workers play a crucial role in delivering household aid.
“We cannot access female beneficiaries unless we have female staff who are going into the field,” Ms. Roby said.