Four major international aid groups have suspended their operations in Afghanistan following the Taliban regime’s decision to ban women from working in non-governmental organizations.
Save the Children, the International Rescue Committee, the Norwegian Refugee Council and CARE said on Sunday that they could not effectively reach people in desperate need without women in their workforce. The NGO ban was imposed a day earlier, allegedly because women were not wearing the Islamic headscarf properly.
Four non-governmental organizations provide health care, education, child protection and nutrition services and support in conditions of declining humanitarian conditions.
Neil Turner, the head of the Norwegian Refugee Council for Afghanistan, told The Associated Press that the group has 468 women working in the country.
“We respect all cultural norms and simply cannot operate without our dedicated female staff, who are essential to us reaching women who are in desperate need of help,” said Turner.
The Taliban’s takeover in August 2021 brought Afghanistan’s economy to a standstill and transformed the country, driving millions into poverty and hunger. Foreign aid stopped almost overnight. Sanctions on Taliban rulers, a freeze on bank transfers and a freeze on billions in Afghanistan’s foreign exchange reserves have already limited access to global institutions and the foreign money that supported the country’s aid-dependent economy before the withdrawal of US and NATO forces.
In a statement, the International Committee of the Red Cross warned that the exclusion of women from schools and the work of non-governmental organizations in Afghanistan “can and will lead to catastrophic humanitarian consequences in the short or long term.” The Taliban also banned students from attending universities across the country this week.
Last month, in an interview with the AP, senior Red Cross official Martin Schuep said that an increasing number of Afghans will struggle to survive as living conditions worsen in the coming year. Half of Afghanistan’s population, or 24 million people, are in need of humanitarian aid, the group said.
Top US officials, including Secretary of State Antonio Blinken and the charge d’affaires in Afghanistan, Karen Decker, condemned the move.
Decker, tweeting at Daria on Sunday, said: “As a representative of the largest donor of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, I feel entitled to an explanation of how the Taliban intend to prevent women and children from starving, when women are no longer allowed to distribute aid to other women and children.”
Her remarks drew a response from the Taliban-led government’s chief spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, who said all institutions wishing to operate in the country were required to abide by its rules and regulations.
“We do not allow anyone to talk nonsense or make threats about the decisions of our leaders in the name of humanitarian aid,” he said in a tweet.
Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong condemned the “appalling decision”, saying on Twitter that it “seriously affects the country’s ability to deal with a major humanitarian crisis”.
The International Rescue Committee, whose staff in Afghanistan includes more than 3,000 women, said it was shocked by the Taliban’s decision. “If we are not allowed to employ women, we cannot provide services to those who need it,” the group said in a statement announcing it was suspending operations in the country.
The NGO’s order came in a letter on Saturday from Economy Minister Kari Din Mohammad Hanif. The letter states that any organization found to be in violation of the order will have its license revoked.
The spate of decisions by the all-male, religiously-led Taliban government is reminiscent of its rule in the late 1990s, when it banned women from education and public spaces and outlawed music, television and many sports.
The ban on students attending universities has sparked demonstrations in several Afghan cities and reactions abroad.
Around midnight on Saturday in the western city of Herat, where earlier protesters had been dispersed by water cannons, people opened their windows and shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) in solidarity with the students.
In the southern city of Kandahar, also on Saturday, hundreds of students boycotted final semester exams at Mirwais Neeka University. One of them told The Associated Press that Taliban forces tried to disperse the crowd as they left the exam hall.
“They tried to disperse us, so we chanted slogans, and then others joined the slogans,” said Akbari, who gave only his last name. “We refused to move and the Taliban thought we were protesting.” The Taliban started firing their rifles into the air. I saw how they beat two of them, one in the head.”
A spokesman for the governor of Kandahar province, Ataullah Zaid, denied that there had been any protests. There were people pretending to be students and teachers, he said, but they were stopped by students and security forces.