Major foreign aid groups suspend work in Afghanistan after Taliban bans female workers

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At least half a dozen major foreign aid groups said they are temporarily suspending operations in Afghanistan after the Taliban banned non-governmental organization workers from going to work.

“We cannot effectively reach children, women and men in desperate need in Afghanistan without our female staff,” humanitarian organizations Save the Children, Norwegian Refugee Council and CARE International said in a joint statement on Sunday.

“While we gain clarity on this announcement, we are suspending our programs, demanding that men and women alike continue our lifesaving assistance in Afghanistan,” said the statement, signed by the heads of the three NGOs.

Another aid group, the International Rescue Committee, said that of the more than 8,000 people it employs in Afghanistan, more than 3,000 are women. “If we are not allowed to employ women, we will not be able to serve those in need,” the company said in a statement on Sunday, announcing it was suspending operations in the country.

Afghanaid also suspended its work in Afghanistan following the Taliban action, while Islamic Relief said it was forced to “temporarily suspend non-life-saving activities in Afghanistan”.

The Taliban administration on Saturday ordered all local and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to prevent their female employees from coming to work, according to an Economy Ministry letter sent to all licensed NGOs. Failure to comply will result in the revocation of the licenses of said NGOs, the ministry said.

David Wright, director of operations for Save the Children International, told CNN on Monday that the organization has been unable to “reach tens of thousands of vulnerable mothers and children across the country” because of the ban.

“We can’t go out to work because we need our colleagues to help us access women and children. You cannot have access to young mothers or young children in education if you don’t have female staff, because it is not appropriate in Afghanistan to have all-male staff dealing with women or young children,” he said.

In the letter, the ministry cites failure to observe Islamic dress code and other laws and regulations as reasons for the decision.

“Lately, there have been serious complaints about non-compliance with the Islamic hijab and other laws and regulations of the Islamic Emirate,” the letter said, adding that, as a result, “guidance is given to suspend the work of all female employees of national non-governmental organizations and international. 🇧🇷

The new restrictions mark another step in the Taliban’s brutal crackdown on Afghan women’s freedoms following the hardline Islamist group’s takeover of the country in August 2021.

While the Taliban have repeatedly stated that they will protect the rights of girls and women, in fact they have done the opposite, stripping away the hard-won freedoms that women have fought tirelessly for the past two decades.

“The supreme leader is doing everything he can to make women as powerless as possible, even if there are other factions that say otherwise,” Afghan human rights activist Pashtana Durrani told CNN on Sunday.

“The Taliban don’t care. They want women to be as limited as possible, especially the supreme leader,” she added.

Earlier this week, the Taliban government suspended university education for all female students in Afghanistan.

At a televised news conference on Thursday, the Taliban’s higher education minister said he had banned women from universities for failing to observe Islamic dress rules and other “Islamic values”, citing female students who travel without a male tutor. The move sparked outrage among women in Afghanistan.

A group of women took to the streets of the city of Herat on Saturday to protest the university ban. Video footage circulating on social media shows Taliban officials using a water cannon to disperse protesters. The girls could be seen running from the water cannon and screaming “cowards” at the staff.

Some of the Taliban’s most pronounced restrictions concern education, with girls also barred from returning to secondary schools in March. The move devastated many students and their families, who described to CNN their dashed dreams of becoming doctors, teachers or engineers.

The United Nations on Saturday condemned the Taliban NGO’s announcement and said it would seek a meeting with Taliban leadership to seek clarity.

“Women must be empowered to play a critical role in all aspects of life, including humanitarian response. Banning women from work would violate women’s most fundamental rights, as well as being a clear violation of humanitarian principles,” the UN statement reads. “This latest decision will only further harm the most vulnerable, especially women and girls.”

UNICEF said the order was a “blatant setback for the rights of girls and women (which) will have far-reaching consequences for the delivery of health, nutrition and education services to children”.

Amnesty International called for the ban “to be reversed immediately” and for the Taliban to “stop misusing their power”.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Sunday that it was particularly concerned about the future of Afghanistan’s health system and about female patients.

The ICRC said it supports 45 health facilities in Afghanistan, including hospitals and medical schools. It pays, among others, the salaries of 10,483 health professionals – 33% of whom are women.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also condemned the move on Saturday. “Deeply concerned that the Taliban’s ban on women delivering humanitarian aid in Afghanistan disrupts life-saving and vital assistance to millions,” he wrote on Twitter. “Women are critical to humanitarian operations around the world. This decision could be devastating for the Afghan people.”

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said US officials “should not interfere in internal affairs” in Afghanistan.

“These organizations operating in Afghanistan are obliged to comply with our country’s laws and regulations,” he tweeted on Sunday, adding: “We do not allow anyone to utter irresponsible words or make threats about the decisions or officials of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan . under the heading of humanitarian aid”.