Afghanistan: Taliban Blocking Female Aid Workers

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Men wait in a line to receive cash at a money distribution organized by the World Food Program in Kabul, Afghanistan, November 3, 2021. 
© 2021 AP Photo/Bram Janssen

(New York) – Taliban rules prohibiting most women from operating as aid workers are worsening the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. Countrywide restrictions mean that aid will reach fewer families in need, particularly women-headed households.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has mapped the agreements between aid agencies and the Taliban in each of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, showing where female staff members will be permitted to function. The document, reviewed by Human Rights Watch, indicates that, as of October 28, 2021, Taliban officials in only three provinces had provided a written agreement unconditionally permitting women aid workers to do their jobs. In over half the country, women aid workers face severe restrictions, such as requirements for a male family member to escort them while they do their jobs, making it difficult or impossible for them to do their job effectively. 

“The Taliban’s severe restrictions on women aid workers are preventing desperately needed lifesaving aid from reaching Afghans, especially women, girls, and women-headed households,” said Heather Barr, associate women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Permitting women aid workers to do their jobs unfettered is not a matter of agencies or donors placing conditions on humanitarian assistance, but an operational necessity for delivering that assistance.”

Afghanistan’s current crisis, like most humanitarian crises, can be expected to cause the most harm to women and girls. The last 20 years of war in Afghanistan resulted in over 100,000 deaths among fighters, many of whom left behind widows and children. Widows struggled to survive even before the current economic crisis and Taliban-imposed restrictions on women’s access to paid work. In addition, women with disabilities, whether married or single, are often seen as a burden on their families and are at increased risk of violence both inside and outside the home.

Female aid workers in Afghanistan play an important role in reaching and assessing the needs of women and girls and female-headed households, especially because the society is often deeply segregated by gender. The lack of women aid workers also means that women with disabilities have less access to rehabilitative services.

In Badghis province, the Taliban are not allowing women aid workers to work at all. In two other provinces – Bamiyan and Daikundi – the Taliban have said women aid workers are only permitted to work during assessments – gathering information about people’s needs – but not in other stages, such as delivering aid.

In 16 more provinces, the Taliban have said that women aid workers must be accompanied by a mahram (a male family member chaperone) when they are outside the office. The most crucial work women aid workers do is often outside the office, meeting with people in need including women and girls, assessing their needs, determining risk factors they face, and ensuring that assistance reaches those who need it most. Requiring women aid workers in these roles to be escorted, forces a male family member to essentially become a second unpaid worker or – very often – will prove to be an impossible requirement that forces the woman to leave her job.   

The Taliban have also restricted the types of work female aid workers can do. In 11 provinces, women aid workers are permitted to work only in health and education programs, blocking them from other areas of humanitarian assistance, such as distributing food and other necessities, water and sanitation, and livelihoods assistance, in which women’s participation is also essential. Another key aspect of aid programming is protecting and assisting people, predominantly women and girls, who may face gender-based violence. Without women workers this task is virtually impossible. The Taliban, since taking over Afghanistan on August 15, have systematically dismantled systems established in the country to prevent and respond to gender-based violence.

Taliban officials in only five provinces have provided written agreements explaining their rules for women aid workers as of October 28; the rest of the agreements allowing women aid workers are oral. In the absence of written guidance, individual Taliban members are more likely to harass women workers, impose restrictions beyond those agreed to, and block women from working.

Many women aid workers have been afraid to go to work since the return of the Taliban, fearing harassment on the street and at their workplace and retaliation by Taliban members and sympathizers who oppose women working. Without a written agreement, women workers will feel less secure and able to continue their work.

Aid agencies told Human Rights Watch that the Taliban are increasingly imposing requirements for offices, strictly segregating employees by gender, with no contact between female and male employees. Such restrictions harm both those in need of assistance and women employees, and reduce the effectiveness of agencies women aid workers kept from the room where decisions are being made, won’t be able to provide their expertise, with expected harm to potential female recipients. And women workers who are cut out of key discussions and decision-making in their agencies will find that their careers, job retention, and morale suffer.

Afghanistan faces a devastating and rapidly worsening humanitarian crisis. The country’s economy faces collapse, set off by widespread lost income, cash shortages, rising food costs, separation from global financial systems, and an abrupt halt to the development assistance that made up at least 75 percent of the previous government’s budget. A growing number of media reports have said that families are being forced to sell their children – almost always girls – ostensibly for marriage, even at very young ages, to have food to survive or to repay debts.

Officials with the UN and several foreign governments have warned that economic collapse will exacerbate acute malnutrition and could lead to outright famine. Surveys by the World Food Programme (WFP) reveal that over 9 in 10 Afghan families have insufficient food for daily consumption, with half saying that they ran out of food at least once in the previous two weeks. One in three Afghans is already acutely hungry.

In December 2020, OCHA estimated that half of all those over age 65 already needed humanitarian assistance. At the time, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warned that an estimated 3.1 million children – half of Afghanistan’s children – were acutely malnourished. In September, UNICEF’s executive director warned that at least one million children “will suffer from severe acute malnutrition this year and could die without treatment.” By mid-2022, 97 percent of Afghans may be below the poverty line, the UN Development Program said.

“Taliban leaders have been demanding that donors address the unfolding crisis by unlocking aid funding for Afghanistan, but the Taliban’s misogynistic policies are blocking aid from those needing it most,” Barr said. “The Taliban should immediately permit all aid workers, women and men, to fully do their jobs, or they will be placing even more people at risk.”

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