The United Nations aid chief has said the humanitarian community was speaking with Taliban officials to try and gain further exemptions and written guidelines to allow some female aid workers to operate in Afghanistan despite a ban on women NGO staff.
“I have been told by a number of Taliban leaders that the Taliban, as an administration, is working on guidelines which will provide more clarity about the role and possibility and hopefully the freedom of women to work in humanitarian work,” Martin Griffiths, the UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, told reporters on Wednesday.
Griffiths said that — during discussions with Taliban authorities in Kabul over the last few days — his message had been: “If you can’t help us rescind the ban, give us the exemptions to allow women to operate.”
He also said that he hoped more humanitarian sectors would be reopened for women workers.
“I think it’s really important that we keep the light shining on the process to lead to those guidelines,” he added.
It was the second UN-led delegation that came to Afghanistan this month to urge the Taliban government to reverse two recent decrees that have severely restricted women’s rights, which include banning women from working in NGOs and being barred from university education.
Last week, UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed told Al Jazeera that some progress was made on women’s rights during her talks with Taliban officials but added that much remained to be achieved.
The high-level visits come amid widespread criticism of the governing Taliban for banning women from universities and NGOs last month.
Taliban officials have claimed the two bans were imposed because women were not observing rules on wearing the hijab, an allegation denied by aid workers and university students.
The Taliban’s ban on women working in NGOs has prompted major international aid agencies to suspend operations in Afghanistan. It also raised fears that millions will be deprived of critical services.
In recent weeks, the authorities have allowed women to work in the health sector only.
Since returning to power in August 2021, the Taliban government has rapidly squeezed women out of public life, banning them also from secondary education and public sector work, as well as parks and baths.
Griffiths promised that when it comes to delivering aid in the poverty-stricken country, the global humanitarian community will insist on deploying women workers.
“Wherever there are chances for us to deliver humanitarian assistance and protection in a principled way, which means with women, we will do so,” he said.
But getting more exemptions for women to work across all humanitarian sectors was an important task at this stage.
“We don’t have time. The winter is with us, people are dying, famine is looming,” he said.
“We need decisions now, which is why I think these practical exceptions that we have been talking about are so important.”
However, Griffiths cautioned that the final outcome was still not certain.
He also pointed out that, as well as authorities in Kabul, speaking with provincial governors and leaders in the southern city of Kandahar — home of the Taliban’s supreme spiritual leader who has the final say on major decisions — would be key.
“It’s very important to engage with the Taliban movement as a whole, that includes … Kandahar, and also with Taliban at the provincial levels,” he said.
Though he said the UN would continue to try and operate in the country wherever they could, there was a concern that international donors might not want to commit to the huge financial cost of aid at approximately $4.6bn a year.
Yet the Taliban has dismissed UN claims that the country will collapse due to economic problems as “not correct”.
The claim of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) that the system will collapse due to economic problems is not correct.
— Zabihullah (..ذبـــــیح الله م ) (@Zabehulah_M33) January 25, 2023
“The Islamic Emirate [the Taliban’s name for Afghanistan] has deep roots, it is not a system that relies on foreign aid to collapse due to economic problems,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid wrote on Twitter.
“Of course, any country that has experienced such a long war and invasions will have economic problems for some time, but the Islamic Emirate is determined to revive all the economic resources of the country, rebuild the economy, and in the last one an half year major steps have been taken that are still ongoing.”
Afghanistan confronts one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, aid agencies say, with more than half of its 38 million population facing hunger and nearly four million children suffering from malnutrition.
According to the UN, 28 million people were in need of aid, including six million on the brink of famine.