By Saeed Shah and Esmatullah Kohsar
Kabul, December 25 (The Wall Street Journal): Aid groups that provide critical humanitarian assistance to millions of Afghans began suspending operations in the country Sunday in response to the weekend decision by the Taliban to ban women from working in most aid organizations.
The majority of Afghans—some 28 million people—are dependent on international aid, according to the United Nations. It is now unclear whether that aid can continue after the country’s hard-line Taliban leadership said Saturday that women would no longer be allowed to work for nongovernmental organizations.
The Afghan economy collapsed after the Taliban takeover of the country last year, pushing millions more into poverty.
The Taliban’s announcement Saturday followed their decision earlier this month to institute a total ban on the education of girls and women, after the government banned females from elementary school and university. It also barred female staff from working in schools.
In its Saturday announcement, the Taliban said that it had taken this step because women working in the aid sector were not observing hijab, or covering of the head. The administration later clarified that the ban doesn’t apply to the health sector, according to humanitarian organizations.
Aid work is also one of the few employment opportunities, especially for women, in a country where many households have lost their male breadwinner to decades of war. Aid organizations said that their employers were observing dress rules.
“I helped women create jobs for themselves, I helped women seek education and I helped women have a better life. None of my activities were against Islam or Afghan culture. I did what men couldn’t do in a restricted society,” said Sara Habibzai, a mother of three who works at an aid group in the western city of Herat. “Since I heard about the ban, I just feel numb and speechless.”
The U.N. warned that the multibillion aid international effort in Afghanistan, which it oversees, was at risk. It will now push the Taliban government to rapidly reverse the move.
“The nonparticipation of women staff in work is a red line for us,” Ramiz Alakbarov, the humanitarian coordinator for the United Nations in Afghanistan, said in an interview. “It will be made very clear to the authorities the consequences of their decisions.”
While the ban doesn’t apply to the U.N., the U.N. is dependent on nongovernmental organizations to carry out much of its work on the ground. Mr. Alakbarov said that “we’re organically the same.”
Since the Taliban takeover, women have been increasingly shut out of public life, even by the conservative standards of Afghanistan. There are new constraints on their movements, dress, education and employment, as a hard-line wing within the Taliban gradually asserts itself.
Norwegian Refugee Council, CARE International and Save the Children said Sunday they will cease operations immediately. Other aid groups said that they were considering whether to continue.
Neil Turner, the director for Afghanistan for the Norwegian Refugee Council, said all international NGOs and the U.N. should halt humanitarian work until the Taliban allow women to work in the aid sector again. His group has helped 870,000 Afghans since the August 2021 takeover of the country by the Taliban, with activities such as distributing cash and providing classes for out of school girls.
“This decision is being forced on us by the Taliban,” said Mr. Turner. “There’s a principle involved here and there’s a very practical element, with a third of our workforce being women, we cannot continue to work.”
Women and children are the most vulnerable in Afghanistan, and the traditional culture means that they can only be reached by female workers, say aid groups. Some nongovernmental organizations are all female, meaning that none of their staff are now able to work, said Fiona Gall, head of ACBAR, which represents 183 local and international aid groups working in Afghanistan.
“This means catastrophe,” said Ms. Gall. “You can’t distribute aid to women if you do not have women staff, you cannot monitor if you don’t have women staff and there are a lot of activities run by women for women.”