Aid agency chief: Taliban say guidelines on female NGO staff resuming work close to finalization

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The head of a major international aid agency said Tuesday that key Taliban officials told him in meetings that they are close to finalizing guidelines that will allow Afghan women to resume working for nongovernmental organizations. But they were unable to give a timeline or details when pressed.

The Taliban last December barred Afghan women from working at NGOs, allegedly because they were not wearing the hijab — the Islamic headscarf — correctly and were not observing gender segregation rules. In April, they said this ban extended to U.N. offices and agencies in Afghanistan. There are exemptions in some sectors like health care and education.

Days before the NGO order came into effect, the Taliban barred women from universities, having already stopped girls from going to school beyond sixth grade. Last November, women were banned from public spaces, including parks.

In January, the Taliban said they were working on guidelines for women to return to work at NGOs. They previously said they were working on guidelines so that girls and young women could return to education but these have yet to materialize.

Jan Egeland, the secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, is visiting Afghanistan for the second time in five months to persuade the country's Taliban rulers to reverse the ban on the organization's female staff.

Egeland met the Kandahar deputy governor, Maulvi Hayatullah Mubarak, who he described as having “direct contact with and links” to the Taliban leader Hibatullah Akhundzada, who ordered the education and NGO bans. He also met the head of Kandahar's Economy Directorate, Mawlawi Abdul Salam Baryali.

“The authorities in Kandahar have a special position since the emir (Akhundzada) sits in Kandahar,” he told The Associated Press. “Whatever agreement we can get in Kandahar can have a national impact. These guidelines are close to being finalized and should soon be put into effect, that is what was conveyed."

Egeland said he pressed the Taliban officials for a timeline and clarity on the word “soon” but they didn't elaborate.

He was told the Taliban couldn't guarantee anything as everything needed to be put to the supreme leadership. They also told him they had been working on the NGO matter for months and that most issues have been resolved.

The guidelines are likely to cover dress codes, gender segregation in the workplace, and a chaperone for travel. Egeland warned that it would not be a lifting of the ban if the guidelines went beyond that.

The Norwegian Refugee Council stands to lose 40% of its funding for Afghanistan because of the bans on female employment and education, he said.

He said the potential loss meant a 40% drop in the number of people reached. The agency has also laid off 220 of its 1,500 workforce and closed five offices. But it retains male and female Afghan staff who are unable to work because of the bans. The agency is not deploying male-only teams.

“I believe their promises,” he said of the Taliban. “But I can only accept the facts.”

Abdul Rahman Habib, a spokesman for the Economy Ministry, said it was too early to talk about the NGO guidelines.

“If it comes from another source we are not responsible for it,” he said. "We are the only source for confirmation. When the time is right we will announce it officially.”

The Taliban have repeatedly told senior humanitarian officials visiting Afghanistan since December that the NGO restrictions are temporary suspensions, not a ban.

But the order is being actively enforced by the country’s intelligence agency, which reports to the Taliban’s leadership in Kandahar.