The cold winter in Afghanistan: the humanitarian crisis and the Taliban ban on working with women as aid workers (2023)

Middle and high schools had been closed to girls since the Taliban took power in August 2021, prompting a campaign by various sections of Afghan society. From religious leaders to community leaders, men and women from all walks of life, there has been a broad call for authorities to do so#LetAfghanGirlsLearn, hashtag that has trended on social networks several times. Afghan women and girls took to the streets in Kabul and other provinces demanding their right to education and work. In fact, these protests by Afghan women and girls are a unique and symbolic form of civil resistance to the Taliban's oppression of women in the country. However, promises to reopen schools remain unfulfilled.

Ban on women: Part of the power game

It's important to understand where that issystematic gender apartheid, as some would call it, is coming. This series of Taliban actions has two dimensions. First, as the politico-military group that took over the country following a political deal with the United States and its allies, the Taliban are trying to guarantee and demonstrate that they have a monopoly on the use of force in the country. There is no significant armed opposition with territorial claims to challenge the current ruling regime. However, public spaces continue to be used for protests and demonstrations by Afghan women demanding their legitimate rights to “education, jobs and freedom” or “food, jobs and freedom”, the two slogans that characterize women's non-violent resistance. against the Taliban. Restrictions Banning the education of women and girls and women working in NGOs is an effective way to ensure that people no longer have a place to exercise their civil rights and defy the government.

Second, for the Taliban, after nearly 17 months of regaining power, the removal of their leaders from the UN sanctions list and, most importantly, their formal recognition by other governments are unfulfilled demands. Therefore, the Taliban realize that the world only listens to them when they make headlines in the media by banning women from work, education, etc., and in this way they take the opportunity to pressure the world to listen to their demands give a gift. The recent visit by UN Deputy Secretary General Amina Mohammed and her meetings with authorities are clear evidence of this.did.

These two recent acts are therefore an exercise of power by a ruling power that continues to restrict civic space, especially for women and girls. These acts are more opportunistic and performative acts to express the Taliban's absolute authority, rather than relying on religion or tradition as some claim.

The humanitarian context and the impact on Afghans

The ban on NGO workers could not have come at a worse time: the humanitarian crises in Afghanistan are intensifying. The situation continued to deteriorate after August 2021, with the collapse of the country's international banking system, the complete shutdown of all development assistance programs and an unprecedented level of brain drain, with most of the national professionals running these programs leaving the country.

UN and humanitarian organizationsidentifiedthat nearly half of Afghanistan's population, 28.3 million people, are in need of life-saving assistance, and to address a priority number of fewer than 24 million civilians will still require a 2023 budget of US$4.62 billion. More than 3 million Afghan women and children are expected to suffer from malnutrition this year.

Due to the ban on women working in NGOs, it is estimated that almost half of these 28.3 million people, i.e. women and girls, cannot be guaranteed help. To further break down the potential impact of such a ban, some organizations say that over the course of 2023, up to 14.1 million people (including men and women of different ages) will be deprived of universal protection and basic services by women and NGOs run by women will undoubtedly be hit the hardest.

On average, women make up around 30% of humanitarian organizations, although this varies by sector and NGO. Women-led NGOs and humanitarian workers play a critical role in needs assessment, design, implementation and research, monitoring and evaluation of humanitarian response in areas such as maternal and child health care, nutrition, primary education, family livelihood support and women's economic empowerment. an initialGender and Humanitarian Action SurveyIt showed that more than 80% of the NGOs have completely or partially ceased their activities and more than 65% of the female employees have not reported back to work since then.

Almost a month after the ban, some NGOs have resumed essential life-saving operations as exceptions were made for food and nutrition, health and primary education activities, with some verbal assurances from the Taliban. Some international non-governmental organizations have suspended relief efforts and large-scale humanitarian operations or resumed them without female staff. In choosing their course of action, humanitarian agencies are again faced with the dilemma of choosing between providing vital services and respecting the principle of gender inclusion in the delivery of those services. There is also a lack of coherence between the main UN agencies, some of which are calling on their local partners to resume activities without female staff, while others are protesting the ban and supporting efforts to reverse it entirely.

Similar to August 1998 with a temporary ban on helping womenworkforce, humanitarian organizations are in ongoing negotiations with the authorities and are using various approaches to request a complete lifting of this restriction and allow organizations to carry out their work in accordance with previous agreements and rules set by the NGO department of the Ministry of Economy . Advocacy work is primarily carried out by the Coordinating Body of the Afghan Aid and Development Agency (ACBAR) and its members (mostly international NGOs); Some of the National NGO Coordinating Bodies also expressed serious concern about the dire consequences of such restrictions for the population in the immediate situation (this freezing winter) and in the longer term.

Overall, there will be three major long-term challenges. First, the quality of humanitarian programs will suffer greatly due to women's limited role in assessing and monitoring aid. Second, humanitarian safeguards and accountability measures designed to protect aid recipients are being jeopardized. Eventually, any specific assistance to women in areas such as support for action against gender-based violence, protective measures, women's mental health programs and counseling programs will be halted, with dire consequences for those who need it. It seems clear that without women workers, NGOs cannot provide quality and principled humanitarian aid.

The way to follow

The most urgent and immediate demand from members of civil society and international humanitarian organizations is the lifting of the ban on women humanitarian workers. This call may need to be expanded into a national call for all humanitarian aid beneficiaries to join with one voice asking the authorities to allow women to participate in the delivery of humanitarian aid. As the ban is a demonstration of Taliban power, it is particularly effective when the voices of Afghan civilians are empowered at the community level through civil society and humanitarian organizations.

Humanitarian assistance that focuses only on men and boys will not meet the needs of the worsening situation in Afghanistan. Now more than ever is the time to take coherent, joint and cooperative steps to work with the Taliban to find the most constructive way to resolve this issue. This includes a coherent stance among the UN agencies, whose differing positions do not lead to a common path forward.

The Taliban should reconsider their approach to restricting civil society space for the population, as it is against all laws of war and against human dignity to risk the lives of innocent civilians for political negotiations. Therefore, Afghans must be at the forefront of any multi-level dialogue with the Taliban on this issue, making them understand the human cost of disregarding the rights of half the population and the severe long-term consequences of this ban on women. and children.

The suspension of major relief efforts also entails considerable costs for organisations. Many donors will be tempted to cut back and draw red lines, particularly where gender inclusion is concerned, thereby cutting support for life-saving systems. But until the ban is lifted, funding partners must provide implementing organizations with clear guidance on the modality of operations, allowing a degree of flexibility to ensure aid still reaches those most in need, while addressing the core principle of gender inclusion by dialogue with the supporting Taliban.

Finally, it is clear that the humanitarian community in Afghanistan is not well equipped to deal with these dilemmas in terms of politicizing humanitarian assistance and ensuring a coherent operational approach to addressing these emerging issues. A more rigorous and regular analysis of the context and its different dynamics needs to be at the heart of the agendas of all agencies so that they can prepare well and provide assistance in the most effective way.

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