Several international aid organisations have suspended their work in Afghanistan in response to a new Taliban edict barring Afghan women from working with any local or foreign NGO until further notice, while the UN is urging the Islamic Emirate to reverse its decision.
The Afghan Ministry of Economy issued the order on 24 December, warning that any organisation that fails to comply will have their licence to operate in the nation revoked. By the following day, the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Save the Children, the Norwegian Refugee Council, CARE International, and Islamic Relief had all announced they would halt their work in Afghanistan until all female staff are able to return to work. The decree came days after the Taliban-run government ordered universities to stop classes for women.
Aid workers who spoke to The New Humanitarian recognised that suspending work now was particularly bad timing, but several said they felt they had little choice but to send a clear message to the Taliban authorities.
Most Afghan families are struggling through a brutal winter, with their spending power heavily reduced as food prices have skyrocketed. It’s estimated that six million Afghans, many of them dangerously malnourished children, are one step away from famine, while more than 700,000 people have lost their jobs since the Taliban returned to power in August 2021 and the heavily sanctioned economy imploded.
“We cannot reach 50% of the population under this ban,” Samira Sayed-Rahman, communications and advocacy coordinator at the IRC in Afghanistan, told The New Humanitarian.
She recalled IRC’s efforts in response to the earthquake that claimed more than 1,150 lives in the southeastern provinces of Paktika and Khost in June, when she said she was personally approached for help by dozens of women in some of the most remote parts of the country.
“We simply cannot operate without female workers at all levels of our organisation, particularly when we are delivering aid to women,” Sayed-Rahman said.
Orzala Nemat, the former director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit who has been involved in NGO and humanitarian work since 1999, said the Taliban must realise how this ban will impact every level of life in the country.
“Think about polio vaccination programmes – most of those vaccinators across the country are young women,” Nemat told The New Humanitarian.
So far, the one major holdout has been the United Nations.
Since the Islamic Emirate is still under international sanctions, the UN is tasked with distributing the $40 million in international assistance that comes into the country each month, which means any UN boycott would have a huge impact on other local and international NGOs.
A source familiar with the situation told The New Humanitarian that the body remains split on whether to halt its own operations to protest the Taliban decision. However, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan tweeted that it had held a meeting with the acting economy minister in which it had urged him to issue a “reversal” of the decision.
The source said it’s important for all organisations to proceed with a united voice on this matter. The fear in the NGO community is that it will only embolden the Taliban to kick out any non-complying aid organisation if the UN continues its operations while respecting the edict.
“The money will still be coming in, and the UN will be forced to find other implementing partners who are willing to go along with the [Taliban] rulings,” said the source, who couldn’t be identified due to the sensitivity of the topic.
Calls for operations to continue, different tactics
But not everyone in the sector is supportive of the international aid organisations suspending their operations.
One Afghan woman, who has more than 20 years of aid experience and now heads an international NGO office in Kabul, told The New Humanitarian that these “big-name NGOs” are not only putting already vulnerable people at greater risk during the winter, they’re also potentially impacting smaller local NGOs who are reliant on their money to bankroll their efforts. This, in turn, could lead to more women being out of work.
“There are serious psychosocial impacts of being stuck at home with no chance of advancement,” said the woman, whose organisation employs 17 other women, and who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect working relationships. “International NGOs suspending their work won’t sway the Taliban, but it will hurt an already suffering Afghan public, especially as the weather gets colder.”
As female heads of NGOs based in Afghanistan, both she and Nemat said they took extra care to ensure that all employees under their supervision – both male and female – adhered to all Islamic and cultural standards, even during the former Western-backed Republic.
“International NGOs suspending their work won’t sway the Taliban, but it will hurt an already suffering Afghan public, especially as the weather gets colder.”
Nemat said she even went against the wishes of foreign donors and insisted women and girls travelling to other provinces were provided with travel stipends so their male relatives could accompany them in order to avoid any potential claims of impropriety by the Islamic Emirate.
Like Nemat, the other female NGO head was encouraged by people standing up for the rights of Afghan women and girls to be educated and to work, and she said she was happy to see there was opposition even within the Taliban to the recent restrictions.
“There are people within the Taliban government who have made their discontent with the recent edicts known,” she said, referring to reports that the acting ministers of defence and the interior have held talks to discuss how to convince the Taliban leadership to retract their decisions. There has also been a wave of statements and poems from some of the Taliban’s online supporters decrying the recent decisions.
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But for those who are hoping to persuade the Islamic Emirate to reverse its decisions on university education and NGO work, it’s hard to know how to proceed. “First, how do we reach these people [who are sympathetic within the Taliban],” said the female NGO country director. “But also, we don’t know what kind of an impact they can truly have on the overall movement.”
Blurred lines and wider fallout
The acting health minister tried to assuage fears about potential limits to access to healthcare for women and girls by issuing a statement saying the ban doesn’t affect the health sector. However, like other NGOs, health organisations say they lack clarity on what aspects of their work are affected by the ban and how far-reaching the minister’s promise is.
Additionally, many women-focused NGOs have health components to their work even if healthcare isn’t their primary focus, leading to further uncertainty about how the ban will affect their efforts.
The female country director said her organisation had been planning to partner with “dozens of local NGOs in smaller communities” in 2023. However, because many of those organisations are female-led, those partnerships, which would be a lifeline to the smaller groups, are now in a state of limbo.
She said the ban will not only impact those women who go out into the field or deliver services to needy people, but also women who are likely to be less educated and whose work requires them to be physically present in an office setting.
“Already, we’re seeing men and women stand up against the ban on women attending universities; there is a movement brewing.”
“Yes, there are women going out into the field and others who handle administrative and management issues, maybe they can work online,” she said. “But what will the women who work as cleaners and cooks in these offices do? They have to be in an office in-person to make an income.”
Nemat said NGOs, including humanitarian organisations, halting their work will definitely hurt the Afghan people, who are already suffering under the weight of sanctions, aid cutbacks, and banking restrictions enacted by Western leaders since the Taliban returned to power. But she said it may also stir the people towards greater action.
“Already, we’re seeing men and women stand up against the ban on women attending universities; there is a movement brewing,” Nemat said, referring to protests and boycotts by students and faculty in provinces like Badakhshan, Balkh, Bamiyan, Herat, Kabul, Kandahar, Khost, Nangarhar, Nimroz, Paktia, and Takhar.
Nemat said those actions – whether it’s marching on the streets, refusing to sit exams, or professors leaving their posts – are proof that the Afghan people are losing faith in the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate. And if they start to see a direct correlation between the government’s actions and their access to even basic assistance at a time of continued economic decline, it could, she added, spur even more protests: “When people are hungry, that’s when they take action.”
Edited by Andrew Gully.