NGOs resume some Afghan operations with women workers

Three foreign aid groups restore work in the health sector after the Taliban bans women from working with NGOs in Afghanistan.

Several aid organisations have restored some operations in Afghanistan after they received assurances from Taliban authorities that women could work in areas such as health, in spite of restrictions last month barring female workers in nongovernmental organisations (NGOs).

The International Rescue Committee (IRC), Save the Children and CARE said this week that they were again operating some programmes, mostly in health and nutrition.

The Taliban administration last month ordered local and foreign aid organisations to stop letting female staff work until further notice. It said the move — condemned globally — was justified because some women had not adhered to the Taliban’s interpretation of Islamic dress code.

Many NGOs suspended operations in response, saying they needed female workers to reach women in the conservative country.

“Last week, the Ministry of Public Health offered assurances that female health staff, and those working in office support roles, can resume working. Based on this clarity, IRC has restarted health and nutrition services through our static and mobile health teams in four provinces,” Nancy Dent, a spokesperson for IRC, said.

A spokesperson from the Afghan Ministry of Public Health told the Reuters news agency that they had not stopped any health-related activities.

“Due to a misunderstanding they stopped their health services and now they have restarted their health services,” he told Reuters.

Save the Children said it had restarted a small number of its operations in health, nutrition and some of its education programmes, where it had received clear guidance from authorities that female workers could safely operate, but cautioned they were limited.

“We have received clear, reliable assurances from relevant authorities that our female staff will be safe and can work without obstruction,” Save the Children said in a statement. “However, with the overarching ban still in place, our other activities where we do not have reliable assurances that our female colleagues can work, remain on hold.”

“The activities we’re working to restart will provide vital assistance, but these activities are only the tip of the iceberg of what’s required,” said Samantha Halyk, a spokesperson for Save the Children.

Hundreds of NGOs have been instrumental in trying to address one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, with half of Afghanistan’s 38 million people hungry and three million children at risk of malnutrition.

The international community has been urging the government in a series of high-level meetings to reverse the order banning women in the aid sector, which was expected to have heavy consequences on aid flows coming into the country.

Abdul Rahman Habib, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Economy, which ordered the ban, told the AFP news agency that it was “a need for our society” that women were allowed to work in the health sector.

“We need them to support the malnourished children and other women who need health services. They [women staff] are working in line with our religious and cultural values.”

UN delegation in Kabul

Meanwhile, the highest-ranking United Nations delegation to visit Afghanistan since the Taliban retook power is in Kabul.

Deputy Secretary-General Amina Jane Mohammed, the highest-ranking woman at the UN, will hold talks with senior figures in the government.

“The delegation is arriving on the heels of a series of meetings that include not only meeting with Afghan women groups in Turkey and Pakistan, but also after meeting high-level delegations from the organisation of the Islamic Conference, of the Islamic Bank, and other officials from the region who deal with Afghanistan,” said Al Jazeera’s Kristen Saloomey.

“Also of note is that there has been a decision in principle to have an international conference on the rights of women and girls in March, with the full support of the international community and the UN,” she added, speaking from the UN headquarters in New York City.

“This is clearly a high-pressure campaign directed at restoring the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan.”

Meanwhile, Qatar’s foreign minister said that the recent measures taken by the Taliban were “very disappointing” but that Doha would continue engaging as the only way forward to achieve change on the ground.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said Doha was also consulting with other Muslim countries to establish a dialogue with Taliban officials in Kandahar, and while it would “not be an easy job,” it was important to keep trying.

Worsening situation

Two aid officials said negotiations were ongoing with the authorities to allow women to work in other sectors, including education, water, sanitation and food distribution.

“We are hopeful that there will be new guidelines soon,” said an aid official with a foreign NGO, who asked not to be named.

The authorities might “selectively open” other sectors for women, another aid worker said, also speaking on condition of anonymity.

“They are expected to ask NGOs which specific departments within their organisations and work sectors they need women staff for, and accordingly, permissions could be given,” he said.

Women workers are vital for on-the-ground aid operations in Afghanistan, particularly in identifying other women in need.

“From the start of winter our situation has been worse. We have not eaten anything for four days,” said Parveen, a mother of eight, standing in a queue to receive food aid in Kabul.

She said she preferred receiving aid from women workers rather than men.

“I can’t tell a man to give me aid first because I have a small kid or I am sick,” said Parveen, 38. “To a woman, you can tell everything.”

The ban was one of two crushing orders made in rapid succession last month after authorities had first barred women from university education.

Since the Taliban returned to power in August 2021, they have imposed a slew of restrictions on Afghan women, effectively squeezing them out of public life.

Secondary school education is already banned for girls, and many women have lost government jobs.

Women have also been barred from going to parks, gyms and public baths.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies