Taliban ban on women has forced UN into ‘appalling choice’

UN says negative consequences of the crisis for Afghan people will be the responsibility of the de facto authorities.

Afghan women chant and hold signs of protest during a demonstration in Kabul, Afghanistan
Women have also been banned from universities and are not allowed to enter parks, gyms or public baths [File: Mohammed Shoaib Amin/AP]

The United Nations is being forced to make an “appalling choice” about whether to continue operations in Afghanistan while the Taliban government bans women from working for the organisation.

Taliban authorities have imposed a slew of restrictions on Afghan women since seizing power in 2021, including banning them from higher education and many government jobs. In December, they banned Afghan women from working for domestic and foreign non-governmental organisations, and on April 4 extended that to UN offices across the country.

In a statement on Tuesday, the UN mission in Afghanistan said the ban was “unlawful under international law, including the UN Charter, and for that reason, the United Nations cannot comply”.

“Through this ban, the Taliban de facto authorities seek to force the United Nations into having to make an appalling choice between staying and delivering in support of the Afghan people and standing by the norms and principles we are duty-bound to uphold,” it said.

The increasing curbs are reminiscent of the Taliban’s first takeover of Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, when the UN said they were responsible for repeated human rights violations – particularly against girls and women.

“It should be clear that any negative consequences of this crisis for the Afghan people will be the responsibility of the de facto authorities,” the statement said.

Decree in violation of UN’s charter

The UN employs approximately 400 Afghan women in the country, with local employees making up the bulk of that figure. Earlier this month, UN humanitarian coordinator in Afghanistan Ramiz Alakbarov said that the decree violated the world body’s charter.

“It is absolutely clear that no authority can give instructions to the United Nations … on who should be employed,” he told the AFP news agency. “We are not going to make an exception.”

Since the ban was announced, the UN has ordered all its Afghan staff, men and women, not to report to the offices until further notice.

The ban triggered international outrage, with the Taliban authorities coming under severe criticism. They have so far not issued any clarification or reason for the UN ban.

In total, there are about 3,300 Afghans in the country’s 3,900-strong UN workforce.

Many NGOs suspended all operations in the country in protest after the ban on women staff was announced in December, piling further misery on Afghanistan’s citizens, half of whom face hunger, according to aid agencies.

It was agreed after days of discussion that women working in the health sector would be exempt from the decree, although the UN also enjoyed a general exemption.

The restriction will also hamper donation-raising efforts by the UN at a time when Afghanistan is enduring one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, UN officials have said.

The UN airlifted $1.8bn into Afghanistan between December 2021 and January 2023, funding an aid lifeline for the nation’s 38 million citizens and shoring up the domestic economy.

In other restrictions placed on Afghan women since 2021, teenage girls have been barred from secondary school, women have been pushed out of many government jobs, prevented from travelling without a male relative and ordered to cover up outside the home, ideally with a burqa.

Women have also been banned from universities and are not allowed to enter parks, gyms or public baths.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies