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Former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark is supporting aid agencies’ decision to halt operations in Afghanistan, and a UN official has urged the Taliban to reverse its ban on women humanitarian workers.

The country’s Taliban administration on Saturday ordered all local and foreign non-governmental organisations (NGOs) not to let female staff work until further notice.

It said the move, which was condemned globally, was justified because some women had not adhered to the Taliban’s interpretation of Islamic dress code for women.

The news led to the beginning of a withdrawal by organisations such as the Norwegian Refugee Council, Save the Children, and Unicef.

Former NZ Prime Minister Helen Clark.
Former Prime Minister of New Zealand Helen Clark . . . “It’s a huge violation of human rights of women.” Image: RNZ News

Clark, who also used to head the UN Development Programme, said the aid agencies were forced to suspend their services or yield to an oppressive policy.

She condemned Afghanistan’s banning of female humanitarian workers.

“It’s a huge violation of human rights of women. Where do you draw the line? If the organisations simply capitulated to this edict from the Taliban, they would be seen to be going along with a huge violation of women’s rights,” she said.

“So it is important that big organisations are speaking out now as they have, and are saying they will suspend their operations while this policy holds.

“The problem is the Taliban and these horrible hostile decisions that they’re taking towards women.”

Clark said the Taliban had tried to present itself as more legitimate than the last time it ruled Afghanistan, but a leopard did not change its spots.

She expected the Taliban leadership would face strong ongoing pressure from the UN and other entities, and they would see the consequences of foreign aid groups withdrawing.

Afghan men stand in queues to receive food aid from a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Kabul on December 25, 2022.
Afghan men stand in queues to receive food aid from a non-governmental organisation in Kabul on Christmas Day 2022. Image: RNZ/AFP

UN calls for Taliban to reverse the decision
A senior UN official has urged Afghanistan’s Taliban administration to reverse the ban on female humanitarian workers, and charities fear it will worsen winter hardships.

“Millions of Afghans need humanitarian assistance and removing barriers is vital,” UNAMA said in the statement, adding that its acting head and humanitarian coordinator Ramiz Alakbarov had met with Economy Minister Mohammad Hanif.

The directives barring women from working at NGOs came from Hanif’s ministry.

The orders did not apply directly to the United Nations, but many of its programmes were carried out by NGOs subject to the order.

Four major global NGOs, whose humanitarian efforts had reached millions of Afghans, announced they were suspending operations on Sunday. Other smaller NGOs had also announced suspensions, including UK-based Islamic Relief Worldwide.

The NGOs said they were unable to run their programmes without female staff.

More than half of Afghanistan’s population relied on humanitarian aid, according to aid agencies. Basic aid was more critical during the mountainous nation’s harsh winter.

Two spokesmen for the Taliban administration did not respond to queries on the suspension of humanitarian programmes.

NGOs were also a critical source of employment for tens of thousands of Afghans, particularly women, as the local economy had collapsed following the withdrawal of US-led foreign forces and the Taliban takeover last year.

One such employee, a 27-year-old female aid worker in western Afghanistan who asked for her identity to be concealed because she feared retribution, said that her NGO had shut its office on Saturday and she could not go to work.

The NGO, funded by a Western country, worked with women in the agriculture sector, helping them set up sustainable incomes.

She said she was worried that losing her job would have a huge impact on her family because she was a single woman and the sole breadwinner.

Her father was dead and her mother was a housewife, she said, adding that she supported four sisters, three of whom were university students who could not complete their degrees since the Taliban administration barred women from attending university last week.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ. 

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