NGOs deem Taliban female staff ban ‘unacceptable’: aid group head

A health worker gives a dose of the polio vaccine to a child during a vaccination campaign against polio in Kabul, Afghanistan, 21 December 2022. (Keystone/Xinhua/Saifurahman Safi)

Sixteen months after Taliban fighters retook control of Afghanistan following US troop withdrawal, the aid sector is reacting to the authorities’ latest edict undermining women’s rights as well as efforts to provide assistance to the crisis-hit country.

With half of the country’s population already requiring urgent humanitarian support, a number of major Western aid groups said they were forced to suspend operations when authorities prohibited women aid employees from working for allegedly not complying with the proper use of hijab, or the Muslim head-scarf.

A joint statement by over a dozen heads of United Nations agencies and major aid organisations condemned the move, saying it has “immediate life-threatening consequences” for Afghans, especially for women and populations that male aid workers may not access due to Taliban restrictions. The UN Security Council and the UN human rights office also denounced the decision.

Many organisations, including Save The Children, the International Rescue Committee, Care and the Norwegian Refugee Committee, said they had to halt operations as aid could not be delivered without female workers, who represent roughly 30 per cent of the workforce. As aid workers, they are also often the main breadwinners for their families.

UN officials have since been in talks with various Taliban leaders to reconsider the ban as there was concern that “hundred of thousands” of people could die as a result of the measures. Ramiz Alakbarov, the UN’s resident coordinator in the country, told journalists late last week that meetings were taking place, aimed at discussing the ban’s impact on various sectors, including the economy, where humanitarian response is one of the most important employers in Afghanistan.

“There is the false calculation that women would be replaced by men,” Alakbarov said. Martin Griffiths, the UN’s emergency relief coordinator, is expected to visit Afghanistan in the coming weeks.

Geneva Solutions spoke to Ignacio Packer, executive director of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA), a Geneva-based global network of nearly 150 NGOs, about the dangerous humanitarian impasse created by the ban, announced as winter further aggravates conditions for Afghans. Many of ICVA’s members operate in Afghanistan within the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief and Development (Acbar), which has joined calls to reverse the suspension of female staff.

ICVA’s chief said the announcement came as aid organisations had been planning to scale up operations with” one of the largest humanitarian budgets next year for Afghanistan.” In its annual global humanitarian response plan, the UN expected two-thirds of the country’s population to require humanitarian assistance in 2023.

Divisions within the Taliban leadership have generated a “very fluid situation” regarding the ability to deliver aid, Packer said.

“There are concerns that the worst may be yet to come,” he said, adding that Taliban hardliners may even be considering excluding aid delivery to women.

Impact Assessment Report on Women Banning V3 INGO\[100\]-1 2.png
From a rapid UN survey with 151 NGOs providing humanitarian assistance, most of them women-led or focused. The snapshot aims to provide a quick overview of the impact of the ban on women humanitarian workers, one week after the issuance of the directive by Taliban authorities. (Credit: UN Women)

Geneva Solutions: Have many of your members decided to suspend operations in Afghanistan?

Ignacio Packer: One of our members is Acbar, which itself has 183 members, a portion of which are ICVA members. There is a wide range of views on how to operationalise efforts, but there is strong unity among groups that the de facto authorities’ ban on women working in NGOs is unacceptable. How organisations interpret this in their operations is a big dilemma, as millions of people in the country depend on humanitarian aid, including life-saving assistance.

A divided humanitarian community will not serve the people of Afghanistan. We all agree on the principle that without women, we cannot operate. It is not just about suspending, pausing, whatever you may want to call it. It is that we simply cannot operate as before. Some NGOs have said that they are suspending work, which is meant to send a strong message.

It is important to understand the fluidity of a situation, where the Taliban has been divided in their approach. Coming to a common understanding of what life-saving aid represents is important and may define how to gain access from authorities, because something like the distribution of seeds is life-saving.

Are you saying that organisations are using vocabulary to send a message that they cannot operate, rather than actually pulling out of the country?

The word “suspension” that certain NGOs have used is a strong statement. It’s not that the NGOs are packing their stuff and returning home. We cannot operate without women. It’s the de facto authorities who have made the ability to reach the most vulnerable at a time of great need extremely difficult with this edict. We are really focused on how to best serve the people of Afghanistan, and that means being able to operate with women.

In recent months, announcements aimed at keeping women and girls at home, such as banning them from secondary and university education, appear to indicate that the Taliban does not care about what the rest of the world may think. Would the authorities find that it is to their advantage now to create divisions among groups responding to the humanitarian crisis?

That’s for sure, and that is why the humanitarian community has to remain very united on the principles in their operations and avoid politicisation of aid by the de facto authorities.

But as a humanitarian community, we are concerned about something that is much bigger than just the delivery of humanitarian aid. If there is no access to education, in a few years there will not be enough female staff to work in hospitals or elsewhere.

As humanitarians we need to remain focused on how to assist the most marginalised of people in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, a division of labour needs to be considered in terms of what the Security Council can do, as well as peace-building, development and other sectors, to improve the situation.

With Switzerland joining the Security Council this year, is there something more that the country, which hosts a large number of humanitarian groups, can do to pressure the Taliban on rights issues and humanitarian access in Afghanistan?

Yes, certainly. Switzerland could contribute within the Security Council on the issues that come up for discussion. But we must also understand the complex dynamics in the country.  Being vocal is always a tool, but silent diplomacy is more important. Engaging in diplomacy is what could, in my view, pay off in the longer run.

Roughly $3.5 billion belonging to Afghanistan’s Central Bank remain frozen in the Afghan Fund, based in Switzerland. Does that situation, where funds could eventually provide greater economic stability in the country, affect NGO operations?

There have been many efforts to bring humanitarian resources to Afghanistan and lots of innovative mechanisms exist. But they are far from hitting the target that we are aiming for. The organisations suffering most from a lack of resources are the national organisations, which are a major backbone for humanitarian operations in a number of the provinces, including for salary payments. The international community has been innovative and donors have shown a flexibility in managing funding to serve operations in Afghanistan.