How the Taliban’s ban on women aid workers could deepen Afghanistan’s crisis

Several women wearing headscarves stand in a line against a blank wall.
Women wait in a line to receive cash at a money distribution organized by the World Food Program in Kabul, Afghanistan, in November 2021. | Bram Janssen/AP

Another edict that removes women from public life and makes it harder for the country’s most vulnerable to get help.

Saara, who works for an international agency in Afghanistan, said that on the December day the Taliban banned women from working for nongovernmental organizations, she thought: Just “kill us at once.”

This was the latest of the Taliban’s edicts to restrict the rights of women, like banning girls from attending secondary school in March, and then universities in December, and now taking away their jobs. Theyhave a knife,” she said of the Taliban. “It is not a knife which is able to cut something at once; you need to try again and again with a knife to cut something. They are cutting us like this. So we said: ‘They must kill us at once.’”

Saara (a pseudonym to protect her safety) is a mother of two, and her income effectively supports her family. If she sits at home, she says, it is not possible to provide the basics, even food.

The same is true for the people she helps through Women for Women International, whose programs offer training and financial empowerment to women, along with cash assistance. Now these activities are on hold. The only thing clear, Saara said, was that Afghan women had no rights. “Nothing, just we can breathe,” she said. “Not more than this.”

Women like Saara, who train teachers, assist with maternal care, or distribute other aid, remain in a precarious limbo. The ban on female NGO employment further shuts out women from public and economic life and threatens to deepen the humanitarian and economic crisis in Afghanistan.

Prominent international organizations have suspended operations in Afghanistan until the ban reverses or changes. The head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths has said the Taliban’s ban jeopardizes United Nations aid. He is expected to travel to Kabul in the coming days to meet with Taliban leaders about the edict. So are leaders of major international NGOs.

Many international and local organizations are a lifeline amid Afghanistan’s current humanitarian emergency. In August 2021, after the Taliban’s takeover and the United States’ withdrawal, Afghanistan’s economy collapsed. Billions in foreign aid evaporated, the United States froze the country’s foreign reserves, and sanctioned Taliban leaders became the de facto government that has since struggled to rule effectively. Though the US has carved out major sanctions exemptions, the penalties are still squeezing the economy of a country ravaged by decades of war and foreign intervention, a pandemic, drought, and now the global fuel and food shocks from the Ukraine war.

One of the world’s largest humanitarian operations is taking place in Afghanistan. About 20 million Afghans — about half of the entire population — received some form of assistance in the first part of 2022. As of December, the United Nations estimates that about 28 million people are in need, about two-thirds of the country. About 20 million people are facing an acute food crisis.

Aid was always the stopgap, but the Taliban’s latest ban risks undermining even that.

Removing women from the humanitarian workforce makes it extraordinarily difficult for aid organizations to reach women and children, often the ones most in need of assistance. Afghanistan is a conservative society, made more so by the Taliban’s restrictions on women in public life. That makes it much harder for women who lead households — something not uncommon in a country where so many men died in war — to find work, or even go out.

“We simply need women to be able to serve women and work with women to improve their situation,” said Christian Jepsen, regional communications adviser for the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), which has put its Afghanistan work on hold as it lobbies to try to undo the new restrictions. “That’s the tragedy of the situation, because it’s impossible to reach the most vulnerable. We have a large number of female-headed households that will simply no longer be able to connect with our programs, and we can’t reach them without women.”

Save the Children via AP
A Save the Children nutrition counselor, right, explains to an Afghan woman how to feed her 11-month-old daughter with therapeutic food, which is used to treat severe acute malnutrition, in Sar-e Pol, Afghanistan, in September 2022. Save the Children is one of the major aid agencies that suspended its operations in Afghanistan after the Taliban banned women from working for nongovernmental organizations.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said about 500 women work for 19 of their NGO partners in Afghanistan; other international aid agencies also have hundreds of female employees across Afghanistan, most of them helping to serve tens of thousands of women and kids. In some cases, those employees, like Saara, rely on paychecks to support their families.

“This is the income that they depend on,” said Shameran Abed, executive director for BRAC International, an organization that suspended operations in Afghanistan but typically employs about 1,290 out of a staff of about 1,950, many of them local Afghan teachers.

“If this gets taken away, they’re saying, ‘How are we going to survive? This is like the rug being pulled away from underneath our feet.’ It’s so distressing for our female colleagues — and that’s before we even get to our program participants who are even more vulnerable and even more in need of the support that our colleagues provide.”

“The situation — it’s just grim,” he added.

Why would the Taliban ban women NGO workers now?

The Taliban said it implemented the ban because women workers were not wearing hijabs, or head coverings, correctly. Aid workers and officials say that there is still a degree of confusion about the scope of the ban. The Ministry of Public Health indicated it would not apply to the health care sector, although the Ministry of Economy oversees licenses for nongovernmental organizations, and the Taliban has warned those licenses could be revoked if organizations violate the rules. Aid officials and workers indicated that local and provincial officials also seemed frustrated with the ban and appeared willing to work out informal arrangements. But those local officials aren’t making the rules, and the risks are too great for many organizations to continue to do their work publicly. It would put women employees in incredible danger.

The ban on female NGO workers accompanied another ban on women attending universities, cutting women off from higher education overnight — and Afghanistan from its potential future workforce. It’s hard to know exactly what prompted these edicts: Taliban leadership remains insular and shadowy, and not exactly democratic.

This decree does appear to come from the highest levels of Taliban leadership, not from the rank-and-file Taliban officials who are trying to run the government. It is another sign that this current Taliban is very much like the old Taliban that ruled in the late 1990s until 2001. And, as with restricting education for girls and women, this is very much from their past playbook: The previous Taliban leadership also restricted female employment, including an edict that barred their work for aid agencies. “This is not only an effort by some guys at the top to reshape Afghan society in a more conservative mold. It’s also a power play. It’s also about the guys in Kandahar saying: ‘No, we are the bosses,’” said Graeme Smith, senior consultant for Afghanistan at the International Crisis Group.

The Taliban may be trying to consolidate power internally, but its leaders are also likely thinking about the outside world, specifically at the continued lack of international legitimacy and recognition. The Taliban remains the de facto government but it is not formally recognized in the eyes of many in the world, especially the West. Some of this is of the Taliban’s own making: The continued restrictions on girls and women invite condemnation from the international community, making governments even more reticent to deal publicly with Taliban leadership.

At the same time, when the Taliban do issue decrees like this, the world pays attention. “They basically take the rights of women hostage, as tools to negotiate whatever they want to take from the international community,” said Zubaida Akhtar, a women and human rights defender from Afghanistan. In the wake of the Taliban’s decree, top United Nations and aid officials are rushing to Afghanistan to sit down with Taliban leaders; finally, attention is on them, and they can “convey this false sense of recognition,” as Akhtar put it.

Women protest on a street.
Stringer/Getty Images
Afghan women protest a new Taliban ban on women accessing university education in Kabul, Afghanistan, in December 2022.

Humanitarian aid and the billions of dollars from donors, including Western powers, are also a potent symbol of the Taliban’s international isolation. Afghanistan’s economy remains largely cut off from the rest of the world. Sanctions remain in place on Taliban leaders, even with carveouts. Afghan’s foreign reserves remain frozen, though the Biden administration has now placed them in a new Afghan Fund, a Swiss-based foundation that is still deciding how to disburse the funds. Smith said that some Taliban see this as forced dependence. “All of this has created economic hardship, which we are then addressing through enormous airlifts of food and medicine,” Smith said.

Of course, the Taliban’s own actions continue to make Afghanistan an inhospitable place for engagement, even among regional partners who may be more willing to deal. And that perpetuates the cycle where Afghanistan remains cut off, and the Afghan people suffer.

Humanitarian assistance is not a solution to Afghanistan’s economic dysfunction, and it has always been an imperfect tool, subject to inefficiencies in distribution and corruption. But there are no easy answers or quick fixes for the country’s woes, and the crises in Afghanistan are so profound that aid is vital and necessary. Development programs, even if they do not operate on the same scale as during the US occupation, influence the local economy. Now, all of those activities are in question, while Afghanistan faces another precarious winter.

A lot is unknown, but this ban has the potential to be devastating now — and long into the future

Aid groups that have suspended operations said they had no choice. For one, they want all of their employees to be able to work freely in Afghanistan. But they also cannot do their work successfully without a female workforce. Reshma Azmi, deputy country director of CARE International Afghanistan, said they served about 700,000 people in 2022, about 500,000 of them women. They have mobile health clinics, run by female staff. They train female teachers, who are the only ones who can teach young female students. Nearly 40 percent of their 900-person staff in Afghanistan is women, and they suspended operations along with other aid groups. “We are also helpless at the moment,” Azmi said.

After the ban, according to a United Nations survey of about 150 NGOs, only 15 percent of organizations were able to remain fully operational in Afghanistan. About 40 percent were not operating at all, and the rest were only partially operational. Right now, efforts are focusing on trying to overturn the ban because even workarounds — women working from home, say — are poor substitutes. As many pointed out, Afghanistan doesn’t have the infrastructure to try to do work over Zoom. And even if it did, some of the work, like check-ups, aid distribution, is going to involve in-person interactions.

The longer this continues, the greater the already high risk of famine and malnutrition within the country. It will force families into increasingly desperate circumstances; already, there are reports of people selling kidneys and of an increase in girls forced into child marriage. It is an unstable and untenable situation, and the brunt of it is borne by Afghan civilians.

And the longer these programs are on pause, the harder they may be to restart. Relationships with local officials erode. The staff, both female and male, may leave or be displaced as they try to seek out other livelihoods. Perhaps most critically, it may become even harder to fund the humanitarian operations that could persist in the country. “We’re trying to tell donors that they should commit and not isolate Afghanistan, they should still commit funding to the country and to the population. This makes it much more difficult for us to convince the donors to stay committed with Afghanistan,” Jepsen, of the NRC, said.

Over time, this measure by the Taliban, along with others on education, will further deprive Afghanistan of the resources it needs. If Afghanistan doesn’t have women to train teachers, there will be no one to teach the girls who still can go to school. If women cannot train midwives or doctors, it will undermine maternal and child health.

“As we’re looking at two weeks, three weeks, four weeks, that’s when others say those ripple effects, the long-term consequences, really start to become more difficult to undo,” said Keyan Salarkia, Save the Children’s Director of Advocacy and Communications in Afghanistan.

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