Several aid organizations have resumed some operations in Afghanistan after receiving reassurances from Taliban authorities that women could work in areas like health care, despite last month’s restrictions barring women workers in non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
The International Rescue Committee (IRC), Save the Children and CARE announced this week that they are resuming some programmes, mainly in the areas of health and nutrition.
The Taliban government last month ordered local and foreign aid organizations to ban female staff from work until further notice. The step, condemned worldwide, was justified because some women did not comply with the Taliban’s interpretation of the Islamic dress code.
Many NGOs then went out of business, saying they needed workers to reach women in the conservative country.
“Last week the Department of Health gave assurances that female health workers and those working in office support roles can resume work. Based on this clarity, the IRC has resumed health and nutrition services through our stationary and mobile health teams in four provinces,” said Nancy Dent, an IRC spokeswoman.
A spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Health told Portal that no health-related activities had been halted.
“Due to a misunderstanding, they stopped their health services and now they have resumed their health services,” he told Portal.
Save the Children said it has restarted a small number of its operations in health, nutrition and some of its education programs, where it has received clear guidance from authorities that women workers can work safely, but warned they are limited .
3 weeks after the Taliban announced that Afghan women have been banned from working for NGOs, we are resuming some activities #Afghanistan where we have reliable assurances for a full and safe return to work for women employees.
— Save the Children International (@save_children) January 16, 2023
“We have received clear and reliable assurances from the relevant authorities that our female employees are safe and free to work,” Save the Children said in a statement. “However, as the overall ban remains in place, our other activities where we do not have reliable assurances that our female colleagues can work remain on hold.”
“The activities we are working to restart will provide important assistance, but these activities are just the tip of the iceberg of what is needed,” said Samantha Halyk, a spokeswoman for Save the Children.
Hundreds of NGOs have been instrumental in trying to tackle one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, which has left half of Afghanistan’s 38 million people starving and three million children at risk of malnutrition.
The international community has called on the government in a series of high-level meetings to reverse an order banning women in the aid sector, which was expected to have serious consequences for aid supplies entering the country.
Abdul Rahman Habib, a spokesman for the Economy Ministry, which ordered the ban, told AFP news agency it was “a necessity of our society” that women be allowed to work in the health sector.
“We need them to support malnourished children and other women who need health services. she [women staff] work in accordance with our religious and cultural values.”
UN delegation in Kabul
Meanwhile, the highest-ranking United Nations delegation to visit Afghanistan since the Taliban regained power is in Kabul.
Deputy Secretary-General Amina Jane Mohammed, the most senior woman at the United Nations, will hold talks with senior government figures.
“The delegation arrives following a series of meetings that include not only meetings with Afghan women’s groups in Turkey and Pakistan, but also meetings with high-level delegations from the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the Islamic Bank and other officials from the region, dealing with Afghanistan,” said Kristen Saloomey of Al Jazeera.
“It is also noteworthy that a decision in principle was made to hold 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 UN headquarters to New York-City.
“This is clearly a high-pressure campaign aimed at restoring the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan.”
Meanwhile, Qatar’s foreign minister said the Taliban’s recent actions were “very disappointing” but that Doha will remain engaged as it is the only way to achieve change on the ground.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said Doha is also consulting with other Muslim countries to engage in dialogue with Taliban officials in Kandahar and while it is “not an easy task” it is important to keep trying.
worsening of the situation
Two aid officials said negotiations are underway with authorities to allow women to work in other sectors, including education, water supply, sanitation and food distribution.
“We hope that there will be new guidelines soon,” said an aid officer for a foreign NGO, who asked not to be named.
Authorities could “selectively” open other sectors to women, said another staffer, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.
“They are expected to ask NGOs for which specific departments of their organizations and areas of work they need female staff, and permits could be granted accordingly,” he said.
Women workers are vital to relief efforts on the ground in Afghanistan, particularly in identifying other women in need.
“Since the beginning of winter, our situation has deteriorated. We haven’t eaten in four days,” said Parveen, a mother of eight who waited in line for food aid in Kabul.
She said she would rather take help from women workers than men.
“I can’t tell a man to help me first because I have a small child or I’m sick,” said Parveen, 38. “You can tell a woman anything.”
The ban was one of two devastating orders issued in quick succession last month after authorities initially barred women from university education.
Since the Taliban returned to power in August 2021, they have imposed a range of restrictions on Afghan women, effectively edging them out of public life.
Secondary education is already banned for girls, and many women have lost their government jobs.
Women were also banned from visiting parks, gyms and public baths.