The Taliban’s 24 December 2022 decree barring women from working in national and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) is another devastating blow to women’s rights in Afghanistan. It also threatens to plunge a country beset by hunger and natural disasters even deeper into a public health crisis.
The United Nations and its humanitarian partners are engaged in intense negotiations to persuade the Taliban to reverse the edict. But for now, many NGOs, which depend heavily on female staff, have made the heart-wrenching decision to suspend their operations, which provide vital food, hygiene, and medicines. The decree also jeopardizes the global campaign to eradicate polio, in which women play crucial roles raising awareness and vaccinating children. Afghanistan and its neighbor Pakistan are the last two countries where the wild poliovirus is still endemic, and the campaign is going full bore to wipe it out by the end of this year.
Since August 2021, when the extremists took over, Afghanistan’s economy has collapsed and the country has been hit with a punishing drought, an earthquake, floods, and a brutal winter. More than 28 million people are in need of humanitarian aid, such as food, shelter, clean water, hygiene, warm clothes, child protection, education, cash transfers, immunizations, and essential health services. Some 6 million are on the brink of famine.
Afghanistan’s Ministry of Economy pronounced the edict in a 24 December letter to the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief and Development (ACBAR), which has 183 national and international NGOs as members. The letter claimed some female NGO staff were not wearing the hijab properly, says ACBAR Director Fiona Gall, and said it would revoke the operating licenses of organizations that did not comply with the ban on female staff. (It came just days after the Taliban barred women from universities and a few months after it barred girls from secondary schools.)
For cultural reasons, Afghan women can’t interact with male aid workers. By issuing the decree, “The Taliban has in effect suspended aid for half the population of Afghanistan,” Sima Bahous of UN Women said in a 25 December statement, adding that “11.6 million women and girls are no longer receiving vital assistance.” And many national and international NGOs say they had no choice but to temporarily suspend some or all operations. A quick survey of 87 NGOs conducted by the Humanitarian Access Working Group on 12 January found that 83% had done so.
“We are in a really difficult spot. We have no intention of abandoning the communities we work with,” says Keyan Salarkia of Save the Children Afghanistan, which has more than 5000 staff in Afghanistan, about half of them women. But, “We can’t reach women or children and can’t keep our staff safe. That is not a compromise we could make.”
Kochay Hassan, executive director of the Afghan Women’s Educational Center, says her organization continues to operate, but with most women working at home. “We have a lot of ambition,” Hassan says. The decree “will not stop us … if women can still work from home and engage with our male colleagues.” The Vision Development Organization, which works on issues such as women’s empowerment, girls’ education, and health promotion, is also persevering, says founder and Executive Director Madina Mahboobi.
Women-led NGOs are under particular scrutiny. When one group’s director wanted to retrieve some papers from her office shortly after the decree was issued, the Taliban was guarding the door, she says. A male colleague collected the papers instead. The Taliban regularly visits NGO offices to see whether any women are at work. If so, they may get arrested.
The United Nations’s own agencies are technically exempt from the ban, but could still see their work crippled by it. The UN World Food Programme (WFP), for example, which is aiming to feed 15 million people through the winter, works with about 100 local partners. “The whole humanitarian community is affected by the decision in one way or another,” a WFP spokesperson says. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which works with 19 local NGOs and more than 500 women, says it has had to temporarily stop some critical activities.
Afghanistan’s Ministry of Public Health has said female NGO workers in the health sector are exempt from the decree as well, but exactly what the statement means is unclear, as it is not in writing, Gall says, and many organizations worry about the safety of their female staff. It appears that female health staff can work in hospitals and clinics, but the status of mobile teams is less clear, Gall says.
As a workaround, Hassan and others have adopted new terminology for their NGOs’ work. In a number of provinces, “safe spaces” for women and children, which provide health interventions among other services, are now “health centers” that continue to operate with female staff, who carefully follow the Taliban’s dictates on dress code and male chaperones.
Leaders of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) are trying to clarify what the edict means for their work. With just two cases caused by the wild poliovirus in Afghanistan in 2022, they say they have no intention of letting up. Two days after the edict came out, GPEI went ahead with a campaign in four eastern provinces, using female vaccinators. But UNICEF decided not to send its female staff, who inform women about upcoming campaigns and their benefits. “That is not sustainable going forward,” says Hamid Jafari of the World Health Organization, who directs polio operations in the region.
GPEI is planning for a large campaign targeting 5.3 million Afghan children in late January, Jafari says. “We are working closely with the ministry of health to ensure that women can stay in campaigns.” If not, campaigns will proceed with male vaccinators, as they already do in parts of the country. Fewer children will be vaccinated, especially babies who can’t be taken out of the house, Jafari says, “But we will go ahead and try our best.”
The U.N. and humanitarian organizations are still hoping the decree will be reversed. The U.N. resident coordinator in Afghanistan, Ramiz Alakbarov, met with Qari Din Mohammad Hanif, the Taliban minister of economy, on 26 December, and discussions have continued. Observers note dissent among the Taliban; some ministers have said they don’t agree with the decree, and some provincial leaders want female aid staff to continue their work. The Taliban seems to have left the door open, at least partially, to more discussions. “That means there is room for compromise,” Gall says. “But it might not happen as soon as we would like.”
Leslie Roberts is a former news editor at Science.
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