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For some NGOs, female staff guarantees are a red line for continuing Afghan aid

‘We are not willing to resume without the meaningful participation of our female staff.’

A woman walks on a street in northern Afghanistan’s Mazar-i-Sharif on 5 September 2021.
A woman walks on a street in northern Afghanistan’s Mazar-i-Sharif on 5 September 2021. (Adrien Vautier/Le Pictorium/Cove via Reuters Connect)

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Armed with $1.2 billion in donor pledges and two pages of written assurances and requests from Taliban leaders, UN officials say they’re prepared to scale up emergency relief to avert a “humanitarian catastrophe” in Afghanistan.

But female aid staff need clear guarantees that they can work safely and independently before aid operations can fully restart, representatives of several humanitarian NGOs warned in conversations with The New Humanitarian.

“What we see is that [permission] is very dependent on the provinces, and which province you’re working in, and which sector,” said Athena Rayburn, director of advocacy for Save the Children in Afghanistan. “So at this stage those written assurances haven’t translated into blanket approval for female staff.”

Taliban leaders have promised to remove “impediments” to aid, to protect humanitarian workers, and to safeguard aid offices, according to a 15-point proposal addressed to the UN’s humanitarian aid coordination arm, OCHA, and signed by the Taliban’s acting minister of foreign affairs, Amir Khan Muttaqi. The 10 September statement, which has circulated among aid groups this week, also echoed previous pledges to commit to “all rights of women … in the light of religion and culture”.

An aid worker at an international NGO called the Taliban statement “too generic to allow for aid organisations to produce robust plans”. The aid worker asked not to be identified as the issue is considered sensitive.

Some aid workers call the Taliban letter a positive first step. But they’re also looking for clear wording that female staff will be welcome – and for assurances that ground-level Taliban in far-flung areas are on board.

“If women are prevented from delivering humanitarian services, we become complicit in the entrenching of gender inequality.”

The issue underscores the differing red lines and approaches to aid restarts within the humanitarian sector since the Taliban toppled the Afghan government in mid-August.

While all aid groups have stressed the importance of female staff, some have been quicker to resume services – with or without women workers in place. The UN’s refugee agency and its partners, for example, reported being operational in two thirds of Afghanistan’s districts, but female humanitarians “have only been permitted to work in specific sectors in some provinces”. An aid worker at an Afghan NGO told The New Humanitarian that female staff there were mostly “working remotely”.

Several larger aid groups worry that proceeding without on-the-ground female staff sets a dangerous precedent: Gender restrictions could be normalised, along with a maze of wildly differing regulations depending on location.

Especially in conservative communities, only female aid workers can speak to women for programmes and needs assessments – meaning the views of half the population could be ignored if female staff were completely absent. UNHCR estimates 80 percent of Afghans displaced this year are women or children.

“We have taken the position that we are not willing to resume without the meaningful participation of our female staff and beneficiaries,” said Eileen McCarthy, advocacy manager for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Afghanistan. 

Anita Bhatia, executive director for UN Women, said: “If women are prevented from delivering humanitarian services, we become complicit in the entrenching of gender inequality in the public sphere.” 

READ MORE: Growing crackdowns on services for women

Taliban officials have asked aid groups to resume operations. But there’s little clarity around policies toward female aid workers – and clear contradictions on women’s rights more broadly.

The Taliban have promised to respect women’s rights, but authorities have quashed women-led demonstrations with whips, beatings, and shock batons.

Many female government workers – including judges, prosecutors, and thousands of women in the police and military – have been told to stay home, according to Wazhma Frogh, a women’s rights activist.

The Taliban have “dismantled” government departments for women’s affairs across the country, and raided the offices of civil society organisations including women’s groups, the UN’s rights chief, Michelle Bachelet said this week. 

They have also commandeered some of the 14 women’s protection centres that UN Women runs for women at risk of violence in Kabul, the agency said.

Negotiating with the Taliban

Afghanistan already faced layers of crises before the Taliban’s resurgence. Some 3.4 million people are internally displaced, about half the population is projected to need aid, and a severe drought threatens harvests and food supplies. 

The fallout after the Taliban takeover has exacerbated these crises. The economy is imploding, food prices are rising, and the aid-dependent public health sector is on the edge of collapse due to donor funding freezes. UN officials say immediate humanitarian aid could be a “lifeline”.

Aid groups say they’re negotiating with provincial and district-level officials to hammer out permissions and safety assurances at the local level, while continuing higher-level discussions with senior Taliban.

“Much of the decision-making is still being undertaken at the provincial level,” said Rayburn. “In some provinces, we are getting more access and permissions than others. And in others, they are saying we need to wait for concrete policy from Kabul.”

In a handful of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, there are agreements in place for women’s participation, at least on paper, according to a UN summary shared with The New Humanitarian. In others, there’s partial endorsement for female health or education workers, but question marks over other types of programmes. In several provinces, there are no agreements at all, or Taliban officials have explicitly said that women can’t work.

Broad statements that female aid workers are welcome is one matter, but defining exactly what this means in practice is crucial: Can women resume work “in the field”? Are they expected to be accompanied by a mahram, or male chaperone, as is already the case in some areas? Can all programmes resume, including ones focused on gender-based violence or family planning?

“It feels like Afghanistan, ironically, is a safer place for internationals than it is for Afghans; for international women than it is for Afghan women.”

“The devil is in the details,” said Marianne O'Grady, deputy country director at CARE Afghanistan. “One little detail around females being in the field delivering services versus in an office: That really changes the modality, and that is a red line for CARE. Women need to be serving women in a humanitarian crisis.”

Ayesha Wolasmal, a Norwegian-Afghan humanitarian consultant who works on health programmes in southern Afghanistan, said mid-level UN staff who evacuated in August need to return to fast-track ground-level negotiations.

But international agencies must also do more to empower Afghan staff who may not have decision-making authority now, Wolasmal said. As in any emergency, local staff comprise the vast majority of aid workers in Afghanistan.

“What I find really difficult about this new landscape is that it was always internationals that were in the lead, interfacing with the government,” she said. “If a national staff shows up at a meeting, he will have very limited clout over any person that is in a position of power. That’s how it used to be, and it’s even more so now.”

For now, the Taliban appears eager to engage with the international community, even while Afghans face mounting crackdowns and restrictions.

“Today it feels like Afghanistan, ironically, is a safer place for internationals than it is for Afghans; for international women than it is for Afghan women,” Wolasmal said. 

“There seems to be a lot of attention on not harming internationals, whether they’re journalists or from the NGO community or UN, as of now. But the gloves are more off when it comes to Afghans.”

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