Taliban edict cuts women from vital aid during ferocious winter

Afghan women walk down a street during snowfall in Kabul in January 2023 - WAKIL KOHSAR
Afghan women walk down a street during snowfall in Kabul in January 2023 - WAKIL KOHSAR

Women can no longer access a fifth of vital aid services in Afghanistan following the Taliban’s ban on female humanitarian workers, new figures show.

This comes amid deadly sub-zero temperatures, which have so far killed more than 100 people across the country, and as millions of people face acute hunger and crippling power cuts.

In December, the Afghan Ministry of Economy banned women from working for non-governmental organisations (NGOs), leading to the immediate suspension and scaling back of life-saving operations.

A poll by the Humanitarian Access Working Group surveyed 87 NGOs across 33 provinces of Afghanistan to track the impact of the ban one month on. It found that one in five organisations said women could no longer access their services.

“Access to women is through female NGO workers and, without them there, it is harder to ensure they are receiving the food, cash and hygiene support they need,” said Ray Hasan, Christian Aid’s head of global, commenting on the data.

The poll, shared exclusively with the Telegraph, also found that only 17 per cent of organisations are operating fully, with 67 per cent having reduced their work and 15 per cent not operating at all.

Between 80-90,000 women work in the aid sector in Afghanistan, while more than 11 million women rely on support from NGOs.

Afghans collecting food aid at a gymnasium in Kabul - WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP
Afghans collecting food aid at a gymnasium in Kabul - WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP

“If women are unable to be part of humanitarian distribution, then access will only be via men. This is deeply problematic,” Mr Hasan said, explaining that Afghan culture makes it hard for male aid workers to care and support women in need.

According to the United Nations, two-thirds of Afghanistan’s population will need urgent humanitarian assistance in order to survive this year.

“People are freezing and time is running out,” said Ramiz Alakbarov, the UN’s top humanitarian coordinator.

“We need to build shelters now but, in this conservative society, if we don't have female aid workers to speak to women in the families, we can't do this work.”

Two-thirds need urgent assistance

In Afghanistan, the need for aid is desperate as winter bites.

The country is facing its third consecutive year of drought-like conditions, and is still reeling from the effects of 40 years of conflict and recurrent natural disasters.

The economy has deteriorated, with 17 million facing acute hunger in 2023, including six million at emergency levels of food insecurity.

An Afghanwoman begs for alms in Mazar-i-Sharif - ATIF ARYAN/AFP
An Afghanwoman begs for alms in Mazar-i-Sharif - ATIF ARYAN/AFP

The provision of electricity is also unpredictable. Afghanistan imports 80 per cent of its electricity from its Central Asian neighbours and Iran, which leaves the country susceptible to wide-scale power shortages.

To make matters worse, the country is currently caught in the grasp of a ferocious winter, with temperatures plunging to -17c and lower in mountainous areas.

Earlier this week, a Taliban official said at least 124 people and 77,000 livestock had died from freezing conditions over the past fortnight.

UN flies in for urgent talks with Taliban

Women’s rights have been reversed since the Taliban reclaimed power in August 2021. Last year, girls were banned from secondary schools while women were mostly restricted from working outside the home.

The latest decree on female aid workers came days after the Taliban-run government ordered universities to stop classes for women.

“With the additional restrictions in place around education and work, this is another blow to the position of women in Afghan society,” said Mr Hasan.

Afghan women workers prepare bread - AFP
Afghan women workers prepare bread - AFP

“If we are unable to directly access women, listen to them and understand their concerns and needs they become increasingly hidden and dependent on men.”

Last week, the most senior UN delegation to visit Afghanistan since the Taliban swept to power in 2021 flew into Kabul. They were tasked with speaking to senior Taliban leaders about reversing the restrictions on female NGO workers.

Mr Alakbarov said the UN was trying to get the ban reversed and that it was a “red line for the entire humanitarian community”.

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