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UN staff letter blasts ‘incoherent’ approach to Taliban ban on women, pushes for unified response

‘The United Nations is sending the message to all its staff that female staff do not matter.’

Displaced Afghan women stand waiting to receive cash aid for displaced people in Kabul, Afghanistan, 28 July 2022. Ali Khara/Reuters
Afghan women wait to receive cash aid for displaced people in Kabul on 28 July 2022.

The UN response to the Taliban’s ban on Afghan women working for the global body is dangerously fragmented and “incoherent”, risking long-term harm to aid operations, an internal letter from UN staff in Afghanistan warns.


In early April, the Taliban announced that Afghan women would be barred from working for UN agencies – extending a December 2022 order already excluding them from NGOs. On 11 April, the UN in Afghanistan said that all Afghan personnel – women and men – would not report to UN offices during an “operational review period” lasting until 5 May.


But not all agencies followed the UN recommendations, the letter states. Some quickly returned to work with all-male teams: “One agency has since deemed all male staff ‘critical’ and offered female staff to return to work without any assurances for their safety, against the recommendation of the UN Country Team, while multiple agencies have not ensured the equal administration of this decision to all of its employees.”


Aid workers say it’s impossible to fully reach Afghan women in need without female aid staff. 


“Through its incoherent approach, the United Nations is sending the message to all its staff that female staff do not matter,” the letter warns. “It is sending a message to the world that gender apartheid is merely an inconvenient operational environment or a simple cultural difference.”


The writers of the letter say it has been endorsed by some 125 staff working for 15 agencies in Afghanistan (the UN says it has about 4,000 staff in the country). The letter was sent to heads of UN agencies and their headquarters in late April; a version is also posted online. The New Humanitarian is not identifying the letter’s writers, who are also UN personnel, as they considered the issue to be sensitive.


At a UN-backed summit of government envoys in Doha this week, how to respond to the Taliban’s restrictions on women was one of several issues on the agenda – in addition to “the persistent presence of terrorist organisations” and “the spread of drug trafficking”.


“The current ban on Afghan women working for the United Nations and national and international NGOs is unacceptable and puts lives in jeopardy,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres told reporters after the meeting. 


“We will always speak out when millions of women and girls are being silenced and erased from sight,” he said.


A spokesperson for the UN team in Afghanistan did not address The New Humanitarian’s questions seeking clarity on its directives, instead referring back to the original 11 April statement and Guterres’ Doha comments.


UNICEF declined comment. UN Women did not respond to questions. The World Food Programme did not submit its responses to questions before publication.


A spokesperson for the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO, did not address questions on the agency’s staffing, saying instead that it is “fully aligned with the UN’s decisions”. 


Conflicting strategies

The internal staff letter is the latest example of how aid groups have struggled to agree on a unified response to the growing crackdowns on women since the Taliban resumed power in Afghanistan in August 2021.


Some fear that working with male-only staff will normalise the restrictions – on top of contravening basic humanitarian principles that will likely see more women go without adequate aid. Others say aid suspensions will only hurt families that need support, and add to what’s already one of the world’s biggest humanitarian crises. 


In the weeks after the Taliban takeover, several international NGOs pushed for guarantees for female workers before fully restarting operations. Other agencies and NGOs were quicker to return with or without assurances, even with male-only staff.


“When the UN agencies stand firm and refuse to work without mixed-gender teams, the authorities will allow female staff to present themselves to work.”


These differing strategies continued as the Taliban layered on new restrictions in recent months. Many groups, both local and international, have returned with mostly male staff in person, making scenes of men delivering aid mostly to other men increasingly common.


Others find workarounds and grey areas for women to continue working; in practice, on-the-ground aid has long depended on negotiations and relations with provincial and district-level Taliban officials. 


The writers of the UN staff letter say they’re not pushing for a particular strategy, but for their agencies – as well as NGOs, contractors, and others involved in aid – to be on the same page.


“We are asking for a consultative process to determine a collective position,” the letter writers said in response to The New Humanitarian’s questions. “We have seen in certain provinces that when the UN agencies stand firm and refuse to work without mixed-gender teams, the authorities will allow female staff to present themselves to work.”


The Taliban can see that aid groups don’t have a common response, which makes it harder to negotiate, said one UN staff member involved in the campaign.


“We hope that the leadership sits together and has the same position, which is clearly not the case,” the staff member said.


Edited by Andrew Gully.

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