Afghanistan currently faces one of the most dire humanitarian crises in the world. To add offense to this time of crisis, the Taliban has restricted female aid workers from working within humanitarian organizations. Islamic law emphasizes strict gender segregation and limits women’s participation in certain areas of public life. For cultural reasons, Afghan women are unable to interact with male aid workers, essentially suspending aid for half the Afghan population. The restriction on women aid workers in the Afghan communities has had severe consequences on society. Sima Bahous of United Nations Women stated that “11.6 million women and girls are no longer receiving vital assistance.” Humanitarian aid organizations have been placed in an impossible dilemma of whether to continue delivering aid, even if they are restricted from half of the population.
The Ban Begins
On December 24, 2022, the Taliban ordered foreign and local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to suspend female staff. According to the Taliban, a number of workers failed to adhere to the strict dress code set forward by the government. Unfortunately, this ban is not the first restriction on women, as girls were banned from attending secondary school in August 2021. Since the Taliban’s return to power in August 2021, women’s rights have been disregarded and limited as the government continues to push them out of society and limit their use of public goods and facilities. The Taliban’s return demonstrated a reversion of women’s rights. New laws put into place restrict women’s movement, as they cannot travel without a male guardian, limiting their options for work and means to support themselves and their family. Women’s rights have consistently been a precarious issue in Afghanistan, but the Taliban’s new restrictions on female aid workers makes its stance on women’s role in society shockingly clear.
Janti Soeripto, president of Save the Children United States, said “women account for 30 percent of the 55,000 Afghan nationals working for NGOs and many of them are the sole breadwinners for their families.” Restricting women from aid operations not only negatively affects Afghan communities but also their ability to feed and support their family. Additionally, most girls have been forbidden from attending school and receiving a secondary education. According to a Gallup survey, less than 12 percent of Afghan women feel they are treated with respect and dignity. Opportunities to speak against the Taliban are far and few, and met with violent suppression of protests, imprisonment, and even torture. Women are turning to online sources to express their dissent and attempt to vocalize their experiences. Girls are finding new ways to secure an education, through online universities or discreet browsers to avoid detection. The Taliban’s restrictions on women’s education, movement, and work opportunities represent a new reality of repression for Afghan women.
The Impact on Women
The importance of women aid workers in all societies, not just Afghanistan, comes from not only representation but also access. Aid workers are individuals who assist people living in poor conditions due to a plethora of reasons: poverty, war, political conflict. Non-governmental organizations who have operations in Afghanistan say that women are essential to their aid operations, as it is impossible for them to reach women and children, who make up 75 percent of those in need, without them. Women aid workers are able to represent the female population in ways in which male aid workers are not always able, or qualified to do. These access limitations are primarily due to Afghanistan's conservative customs and rules prohibiting contact between unrelated men and women. The United Nations estimates 85 percent of non governmental aid organizations who serve Afghanistan have partially or fully shut down operations due to lack of access and staffing caused by the Taliban’s ban. Female aid workers service the Afghan community in ways specific to their gender that cannot be replaced by male aid workers. The Taliban’s ban is the latest advancement in driving women from society, but it demonstrates detrimental consequences to the aid operations in Afghanistan.
The Taliban’s restriction of women aid workers has raised questions in many organizations who provide funding and humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. Currently, Afghanistan is the biggest humanitarian aid program in the world, with roughly 28 million Afghans in need of help and $44.6 billion being given for humanitarian aid. Therefore, the ban on women aid workers came as a large surprise to many states, as Afghanistan remains in a state of humanitarian crisis, with aid officials saying 97 percent of the population is now in poverty or at risk of it. Cutting off a large supply of aid workers who have access in restricted areas could be detrimental to the humanitarian aid effort. Organizations such as Save the Children and Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere (CARE) have suspended operations and are frantically attempting to answer questions on how they will continue funding humanitarian operations, and if they will choose to continue to provide aid at all. Many other national and international non-governmental organizations face the same challenge. A survey of 87 NGOs by the Humanitarian Access Working Group found that 83 percent of organizations had temporarily suspended operations in Afghanistan. Keyan Salarkia of Save the Children Afghanistan, who has over 5,000 staff members in Afghanistan, confirmed the challenges faced by aid organizations by saying they have no intention of abandoning the communities they serve, but they cannot reach women and cannot compromise the safety and security of their staff to continue their work. With more than 28 million in need of humanitarian aid and an estimated six million on the brink of famine, limiting or suspending humanitarian aid efforts in Afghanistan is not a sustainable or realistic option for the communities in need of these services. The Taliban’s ban affects women’s standard of living and rights but also the Afghan community that is suffering from the consequences of the ban.
International Community Response
The Taliban’s decision to ban women aid workers was unexpected and came as a shock to the international community. While the United Nations may have been ill-prepared to deal with the ban, it did not prevent them from attempting to reverse the order. On December 26, 2022, Ramiz Alakbarov, UN Resident Coordinator in Afghanistan, met with Qari Din Mohammah Hanif, the Taliban Minister of Economy, to discuss compromises that can be made to reinstate women aid workers. The international community recognizes this ban as a human rights violation that will lead to detrimental effects in Afghanistan. On December 29, 2022, UN experts called for the international community to come together to present a unified and strong front. A spokesperson from the UN World Food Programme (WFP) says, “the whole humanitarian community is affected by the decision in one way or another.” The ban on women aid workers has led to the violation of women’s rights in Afghanistan, suspension of humanitarian aid efforts, and a response from the international community to reverse the ban. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Martin Griffiths warned the Taliban’s ban on women aid workers is “a potential death blow” to humanitarian programs in Afghanistan. Afghanistan made it through one harsh winter, but with the Taliban’s ban and additional restrictions, there is uncertainty if they can manage survival a second time. This restriction on women goes far past humanitarian aid and instead lies in the realm of human rights violations and a lack of regard for human security.
The Next Steps
As of now, there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the restriction of women aid workers in Afghanistan and if the humanitarian efforts and operations in Afghan communities will continue. Griffiths reported that “he had been told by a number of Taliban leaders that the Taliban, as an administration, is working on guidelines which will provide more clarity about the role [...] and hopefully the freedom of women to work in humanitarian work.” However, the credibility of the Taliban has been questioned multiple times. If women are not working in humanitarian aid, half of the Afghan population is going unrepresented and unaddressed. A statement by Afghaniaid addresses these worries, stating “if NGOs are unable to employ female staff [...] Afghan women will be unable to receive humanitarian and development aid directly, and we therefore lose the ability to support half the population.” The harsh truth is the UN worries about the Taliban’s credibility and if they will actually deliver on the promises they have made. Griffiths stated that the Taliban has presented them with scenarios and exceptions in which women have been able to return to the workforce—but only in critical areas such as healthcare and education.
While everyone hopes that the ban on women aid workers in Afghanistan will be reversed, the Taliban is unlikely to stick to their word, and the ban will remain in place. The Taliban has made shallow assurances, by allowing some women aid workers to return to crucial areas, but the utilization of this loophole has not assured the community that they are interested in reversing the ban completely. The ban of women aid workers brings concern to the international community, and the UN Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs is concerned about the future of humanitarian aid in Afghanistan. The restriction on women aid workers by the Taliban has reduced the success and access of humanitarian workers by restricting half the population from their reach. Women aid workers are essential not only for the ability and access to certain communities and individuals who only feel comfortable with women but also for women's rights and access to public goods and facilities. The Taliban’s restriction on women aid workers affects the Afghanistan humanitarian crisis as a whole, and their population is certain to suffer from this decision as aid workers are limited and donors are unsure if they want to fund a cause that restricts a portion of the population. The international community will now anxiously await the Taliban’s next move in order to make a decision of how to best proceed in this humanitarian crisis.