Afghan women and children wait to receive food aid at a WFP facility in Kandahar. It is unclear whether the Taliban’s directive will impact foreign women working at NGOs – Copyright AFP Ahmad SAHEL ARMAN
Jay Deshmukh and Qubad Wali
Top officials from the United Nations and dozens of NGOs operating in Afghanistan are meeting in Kabul Sunday to discuss the way ahead after the Taliban authorities ordered all NGOs to stop women employees from working, aid officials said.
The order issued by the Taliban authorities drew swift international condemnation, with governments and organisations warning of the impact on humanitarian services in a country where millions rely on aid.
The latest restriction comes less than a week after the hardline Islamists banned women from attending universities, prompting global outrage and protests in some Afghan cities.
The Ministry of Economy on Saturday threatened to suspend the operating licences of NGOs if they failed to implement the order.
The ministry, which issues these licences, said it had received “serious complaints” that women working in NGOs were not observing a proper Islamic dress code.
“A meeting of Humanitarian Country Team (HCT) is scheduled later today to consult and discuss how to tackle this issue,” Tapiwa Gomo, public information officer for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told AFP.
The HCT comprises top UN officials and representatives of dozens of Afghan and international NGOs who coordinate distribution of aid across the country.
The meeting will discuss whether to suspend all aid work following the latest Taliban directive, some NGO officials said.
The United Nations, which said it would seek an explanation from the Taliban about the order, condemned the ministry’s directive.
It said the order excluding women “systematically from all aspects of public and political life takes the country backward, jeopardising efforts for any meaningful peace or stability in the country”.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the ban would be “devastating” to Afghans as it would “disrupt vital and life-saving assistance to millions”.
– ‘Hell for women’ –
“I’m the only breadwinner of my family. If I lose my job my family of 15 members will die of hunger,” said Shabana, 24, a woman employee with an international NGO working in Afghanistan for decades.
“While the world is celebrating the arrival of the new year, Afghanistan has become a hell for women.”
The ministry said women working in NGOs were not observing “the Islamic hijab and other rules and regulations pertaining to the work of females in national and international organisations”.
But women employees AFP spoke to dismissed the charge.
“Our offices are gender segregated, and every woman is properly dressed,” said Arezo, who works for another foreign NGO.
It remained unclear whether the directive impacted foreign women staff at NGOs.
The ban comes at a time when millions across the country depend on humanitarian aid provided by international donors through a vast network of NGOs.
Afghanistan’s economic crisis has only worsened since the Taliban seized power in August last year, which led to Washington freezing billions of dollars of its assets and foreign donors cutting aid.
Dozens of organisations work across remote areas of Afghanistan and many of their employees are women, with several warning a ban on women staff would stymie their work.
“The ban is going to impact all aspects of humanitarian work as women employees have been key executors of various projects focussing on the country’s vulnerable women population,” said a top official of a foreign NGO in Kabul.
On Tuesday, the minister of higher education banned women from universities, charging that they too were not properly dressed.
That ban triggered widespread international outrage and some protests, which were forcefully dispersed by the authorities.
Since returning to power in August last year, the Taliban have already barred teenage girls from secondary school.
Women have also been pushed out of many government jobs, prevented from travelling without a male relative and ordered to cover up outside of the home, ideally with a burqa.
They are also not allowed to enter parks or gardens.
The Taliban have also resumed public floggings of men and women in recent weeks, widening their implementation of an extreme interpretation of Islamic sharia law.