Humanitarian staff says aid agencies in Afghanistan will struggle to provide services if Taliban upholds ban

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Aid agencies in Afghanistan will struggle to provide vital services to people in the country if the Taliban upholds its ban on women working for NGOs, humanitarian staff told Al Arabiya English.

The Taliban came back to power in Afghanistan in 2021 after the US-led military coalition that originally ousted them pulled out of the country after 20 years.

But since returning, the country has witnessed a reversal of women’s rights, including a ban on women’s education in secondary schools and universities. In its latest move, the Taliban on Saturday announced that females are no longer allowed to work for NGOs.

“We simply cannot function without our female staff,” Annika Hampson, senior adviser at the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), told Al Arabiya English. “The females are a vital part of our humanitarian aid.”

The NRC has temporarily suspended its work in the country where around a third of its 1,541 staff are women, the majority of them Afghani.

In addition to making the work of the NGO harder, this also means that those women are now left without an income.

“They are incredibly scared and frustrated. Women are saying they can’t afford this,” Hampson said. “Many of them are breadwinners, and if they stop working, their families stop eating.”

The NRC is just one of many humanitarian agencies in Afghanistan relying on female staff to run its operations in the country. The NRC’s initiatives in the country include education, food security and housing programs.

Following the Taliban’s announcement, Save the Children and CARE International also suspended their work in the country.

“We cannot effectively reach children, women and men in desperate need in Afghanistan without our female staff,” Save the Children said in a statement on Sunday.

The charity – which runs a number of programs including mobile medical clinics and education classes – currently has just under 2,500 female staff in the country, the group said in a separate press release.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has around 1,800 staff in Afghanistan, a mix of both women and men as well as international workers and Afghans, according to Lucien Christen, an ICRC spokesperson.

“The main concern of the ICRC is the impact this decision might have on the truly dire humanitarian situation in Afghanistan,” he told Al Arabiya English.

In contrast to other agencies, the ICRC is still continuing its operations in the country, with women central to those.

“There are sensitivities on gender in Afghanistan, women are treated by women,” he said.

“We can’t reach vulnerable women and children,” added Hampson.

“In a conversative society like Afghanistan we need women for everything.”

The decision has also come at a particularly bad time when people are more likely to be vulnerable because of winter weather.

Some of the services the NRC has had to suspend are vital to ensuring Afghans stay warm throughout the cold winter months where temperatures can fall below zero degrees.

“Since the Taliban took over, we have assisted over 870,000 people over 18 provinces, and this year we are in the middle of life saving winterization,” said Hampson who described ‘winterization’ as services to help residents during cold months, such as cash handouts so people can afford to heat their homes.

“More than half of the population relies on humanitarian [aid],” said Christen, adding that out of the 33 hospitals in the country that the ICRC supports staff are already seeing an increase in patients suffering from pneumonia.

For now, the only thing aid agencies can do is try to negotiate with Taliban forces to try to have the decision reversed, but the situation is still very unpredictable.

“We are urging the authorities to fully consider what the implications [of banning women from working for NGOs] would be,” said Christen.

“It’s important to see this in the wider perspective, the Taliban are isolating themselves from the rest of the world [and] it’s the Afghans that are going to suffer,” said Hampson.

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