Top UN officials seek to ‘water down’ bans on women in Afghanistan

Health workers visiting houses to administer polio vaccination to children in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Jan 25, 2023. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

KABUL/UNITED NATIONS – The United Nations is pushing the Taliban administration in Afghanistan for more exemptions to its ban on most female aid workers, top UN officials said on Wednesday, while also expressing concern that foreign women working for international organisations and embassies could next be targeted.

Speaking to Reuters during a visit to Kabul, UN aid chief Martin Griffiths said that his message during meetings with Taliban officials had been: “If you can’t help us rescind the ban, give us the exemptions to allow women to operate.”

Last month, the Taliban authorities – who seized power in August 2021 – banned most female aid workers and stopped women from attending university after stopping girls from attending high school in March.

Mr Griffiths travelled to Afghanistan after a visit last week by UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed.

Mr Griffiths said some exemptions to the female aid worker ban had been granted in health and education, and that there were indications there could be a possible exemption in agriculture.

But he said much more was needed, with nutrition and water and sanitation services a priority to prevent severe illnesses and malnutrition during a severe humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.

“We have not seen the history of the Taliban reversing any edict. What we have seen is exemptions that, hopefully, if we keep pushing them, they will water down those edicts to a point where we will get women and girls back into school and into the workplace,” Ms Mohammed told reporters in New York on Wednesday.

Mr Griffiths said that, following his recent discussions with the Taliban authorities, he was hopeful they would create a set of written guidelines to allow aid groups to operate with female staff in more areas with certainty in the coming weeks.

“The next few weeks are absolutely crucial to see if the humanitarian community... can stay and deliver,” he said, while cautioning: “I don’t want to speculate as to whether we’re going to come out of this in the right place.”

The Taliban administration did not immediately respond to a request for comment on its plans over guidelines.

During her visit last week, Ms Mohammed met the Shura – the leadership council that issues the bans – in the southern Taliban heartland of Kandahar.

She said there is a concern that they may next prohibit “international women from international organisations and embassies”.

“It hasn’t happened so far,” said Ms Mohammed, adding that they had been expecting a possible announcement all month.

“I don’t say that it won’t, but clearly the pressure that we’re putting on has stopped that rollback as quickly.”

Mr Griffiths said the UN would continue operating in Afghanistan wherever it could, but there was a concern that international donors might not want to commit to the huge financial cost of aid at around US$4.6 billion (S$6 billion) a year.

“I lose sleep about this, I really do,” Mr Griffiths said, adding that he would meet donors in the coming weeks to make the case for why Afghanistan needed help during an intense humanitarian crisis in which 28 million people were in need of aid, including six million on the brink of famine.

REUTERS

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