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UN drops stay-home orders for Afghan staff over Taliban women ban

‘We cannot disengage despite the challenges.’

In the foreground we see a woman sitting on the ground. Behind her are white sacks of aid and in the background we see a crowd of people awaiting aid. Ali Khara/Reuters
Afghan women wait to receive sacks of rice as part of humanitarian aid sent by China to Afghanistan, at a distribution centre in Kabul on 7 April 2022.

The UN has dropped orders asking all Afghan staff not to report to their offices, according to an email sent to personnel in Afghanistan.


It comes more than a month after the Taliban banned Afghan women from working for the global body – raising widespread condemnation, but also concern about what critics called an “incoherent” UN response to the restrictions.


The UN country team “has decided to discontinue the system-wide alternative work modalities (AWM) arrangement, which was put in place as an immediate initial response to the ban on national women staff working at UN offices,” states the email, which was sent to staff following 4 May meetings and seen by The New Humanitarian. “Moving forward, decisions on new work modalities will be taken at the agency level.”


In early April, the UN country team instructed all Afghan staff – women and men – to not report to the office until 5 May while it considered how to respond to the Taliban demands.


In practice, aid groups had been operating under their own rules from the start: Several returned to work immediately with mostly male-only teams, according to UN staff, while others followed the directives.


In late April, a group of UN staff in Afghanistan warned that their agencies were taking a “fractured” and “incoherent” response that undermined the rights of its female staff – and common ground for aid groups to push back on the restrictions.


The Taliban had already, in December 2022, banned Afghan women from working for NGOs. These and other employment bans are on top of sweeping restrictions on education, freedom of movement, and other areas that have progressively stripped Afghan women of their rights since the Taliban resumed power in August 2021.


“Without female staff, it is not possible to reach half of the Afghan population in respect of cultural norms,” the UN staff wrote in a late April letter to their agencies’ leadership. The “non-unified” UN response to the bans, they wrote, favours “discriminatory delivery over the maintenance of principles”.


A spokesperson for the UN mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA, did not respond to a request for comment before publication. 


A public statement released on 5 May does not mention the original directive asking Afghan staff to stay home: “We must remain focused on our objective to support the people of Afghanistan. We cannot disengage despite the challenges,” the statement reads.


Some Afghan civil society leaders have urged the UN to push back on the Taliban bans, and support women protesters asking for aid suspensions. Others say suspensions will hurt everyday Afghans rather than influencing the Taliban.


In practice, aid groups, including Afghan-led organisations, have for years relied on negotiations and relations with ground-level Taliban officials to maintain access and safety for female staff, leaving grey areas and volatile rules that differ from district to district.


‘Critical moment’

The UN email sent to staff is a summary of 4 May meetings held by UN agencies, which included discussions on how to respond to the Taliban ban.


Sources familiar with the talks told The New Humanitarian that UN agencies disagreed on how to proceed, with some more forcefully pushing to drop the system-wide orders.


The email said that individual UN agencies will now make staffing decisions based on a range of goals, including the need to “save lives at scale”, the need to “ensure operational/business continuity”, and a “commitment to ensure that work for all staff is undertaken in principled and ethical ways”, while “recognising the constraints and conditions imposed” by the Taliban.


“The UNCT members in Afghanistan acknowledge the difficulty of operationalising these conditions and will work together to better define this approach in the near future,” the email states.


In a separate briefing issued on 8 May, UNAMA’s human rights section reported that Afghan female staff “experienced restrictions on their movements, including harassment, intimidation, and detention”. 


It stressed the importance of a common response.


“This is a critical moment for the international community’s engagement with the de facto authorities on human rights issues, most importantly the rights of women and girls,” the briefing stated. “A unified response is needed to draw the de facto authorities’ attention to their international human rights obligations and the impact that exclusion of half the population will have on Afghanistan’s future.” 


Edited by Andrew Gully.

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