‘Sense of helplessness’ for Afghan women on Taliban NGO work ban

Alia, an Afghan mental health professional, said the Taliban’s ban on women working with NGOs hurts the vulnerable.

Working as a female mental health professional in Afghanistan, life for 42-year-old Alia has not been easy under the country’s Taliban rulers.

Since seizing power last year, the Taliban have imposed increasing restrictions on women’s freedoms – from education to clothing, to their everyday movements, and now work. This has made it hard for Alia, who is the primary provider for her family, to pursue her career with the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

The nature of Alia’s work, and the international organisation she was associated with, had allowed her to continue working, even when other women across the country were being forced out of their jobs.

“After the Taliban came, there was some fear among us [female employees] but we managed to work by adhering to their rules, such as covering in a hijab as prescribed by them and always travelling to work with a mahram [a male family member],” she recalled.

“It was extremely challenging, but we were providing much-needed services to some very remote and underprivileged regions of this country,” she said.

“They even allowed our team of doctors to work. We were providing crucial services to women and children, and I also worked with patients who needed mental health support,” she added, the sense of pride evident in her voice.

But all this came to a halt on Saturday, when the Taliban banned women from working in local and foreign non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Afghanistan.

A statement issued by the Ministry of Economy elaborated that a lack of proper hijab-wearing among female employees had led to the ban “until further notice”.

The latest ban on women working follows the recent ban on female students attending universities – both indicative of a hardening approach taken by the Taliban. Requests by Al Jazeera for input to this story from the Taliban’s spokesperson went unanswered.

“I don’t know how we will continue to survive,” Alia told Al Jazeera. “I have been working since 2008 and I am the breadwinner of my family of six. My husband has an unsteady income that barely covers the rent.”

“Already, in this current economy, I struggle to provide for a better future for my children. But if mothers like me are not able to work now, we will be forced to raise illiterate children for the future society,” she said.

Aside from her personal loss, Alia was more concerned for the communities she works with.

“This isn’t just a loss for my family but also to many families we were supporting. They are in a far [more] miserable situation,” she said.

“When I think about those people, I feel unwell and I think my heart will burst from the pain.”

‘Discriminatory towards half of the population’

In response to the Taliban’s ban on women working, several international NGOs operating in Afghanistan, including Alia’s employer – the IRC – have suspended services in the country.

The IRC has been operating in Afghanistan since 1988, with more than 3,000 women employed there, before the ban, in various capacities. It had never before had to cease delivering life-saving services to those in need.

“For IRC, our ability to deliver services rely on female staff at all levels of our organization. If we are not allowed to employ women, we are not able to deliver to those in need. Therefore, the IRC is currently suspending our services in Afghanistan,” the organisation said in a statement.

The statement added that excluding women from humanitarian service delivery would have “catastrophic consequences for the Afghan people”.

Similar sentiments were echoed by other international NGOs that have been “forced” by the ban on women workers to suspend crucial services.

“We just can’t do our job without women working for us,” Becky Roby, advocacy manager at the Norwegian Refugee Council told Al Jazeera.

“The culture is very conservative in Afghanistan; we cannot send men in to talk to women and provide services to women,” Roby said.

“Many households across the country are women-headed households, who stand to lose access to humanitarian assistance altogether with these changes,” she said, adding that when it came to principle, the ban was unacceptable.

“We cannot work in a system that is so openly and so unapologetically discriminatory towards half of the population.”

‘I love everything about my job’

At least one Afghan organisation is resisting the ban on its female employees.

Nasrat Khalid, founder of Aseel, an Afghan e-commerce business platform that now works in the aid and development sector after the Taliban takeover, has promised to continue operating with its female employees and volunteers.

“Aseel doesn’t care about the political aspects of the situation in Afghanistan; we are a purely humanitarian-run organisation that relies on people, that includes women, to respond to the humanitarian crisis,” Khalid told Al Jazeera.

Aseel’s response to the ban was to launch a program that recruits more women to roles that are largely focused on technology, Khalid said.

“We are not only going to keep supporting our women beneficiaries but are also launching remote work opportunities for women all over Afghanistan. We will launch the 50 Afghan Women in Tech as our first grand challenge this week, where we will recruit 50 more women… as our capacity increases, we will keep onboarding women to work with us,” he said.

That hope now is that Aseel’s status as a business will likely protect its non-profit and humanitarian activities.

For many of its female employees, the assurances from management have come as a relief.

“When I first heard the news of the ban, I experienced a sense of helplessness, it was very hard to hear,” said 24-year-old Madina Matin who works as Aseel’s communication manager in Kabul.

Matin, who is also pursuing a postgraduate degree in business, said she had received tremendous support from her employer since the Taliban takeover and the emerging restrictions.

“I remember when the first ban on girls’ schools was announced last year, the Aseel team came together for a session for the female staff to keep their morale high and to ensure the situation doesn’t affect us negatively. I have also been given many flexibilities in my work as things change,” she said.

Matin said she could not bear the thought of not being allowed to work.

“I love everything about my job,” she told Al Jazeera.

“I have been working and contributing to the mission here despite all the restrictions and labels imposed on me for being a woman. I go to bed every night very satisfied with the work I have done,” she said. “Emotionally, however, there is always the tension of an unforeseen future that I hold.”

The IRC’s Alia, too, has been living with uncertainty.

She is now glued to her mobile phone, checking the news every few minutes, hoping to hear of a positive development for women workers. Perhaps a change of heart among Taliban leaders?

“There are long periods when we have no electricity and I feel so anxious,” she said.

“All I can do is then to pray that the next time I check my phone, our problems have been resolved.”

Source: Al Jazeera