The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Taliban bars women from working at NGOs; key aid groups halt operations

Afghan university students in Quetta, Pakistan, gather Saturday to protest their home country's ban on university education for women. (Arshad Butt/AP)
6 min

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers have issued another sweeping ban on women in public life, barring female Afghan employees from working at international organizations. The Economy Ministry announced the decision in a statement Saturday, saying that “all female employees who are working in their respective departments should stop their work until further notice.”

On Sunday, at least four major international aid groups said they would halt operations in Afghanistan in light of the announcement, which drew widespread condemnation.

“We cannot effectively reach children, women and men in desperate need in Afghanistan without our female staff,” D.C.-based Save the Children, the Norwegian Refugee Council and Geneva-based Care International said in a joint statement.

The groups said they had stopped programs until they could get more “clarity” about the ban.

The International Rescue Committee, headquartered in New York — which employs some 8,000 Afghans, 3,000 of whom are women — said in a separate statement Sunday that it would also halt operations.

Qatar — which hosted the Taliban political leadership in exile during the war in Afghanistan and helped mediate rounds of peace negotiations — expressed “deep concern” about the ban. In a statement shared on Sunday by the Foreign Ministry on Twitter, Doha stressed the Taliban’s “need to respect women’s right to work, given that the freedom to choose and accept work is a human right.”

In its Saturday statement, the Economy Ministry warned that any international organization that does not comply with the new ban will see its work permit revoked.

The ministry said the decision was made after “serious complaints” that women working for nongovernmental organizations were not observing conservative Islamic dress. Earlier this year, the Taliban ordered all Afghan women to wear head-to-toe coverings in public.

Teachers and students in a Kabul school express fear that the Taliban's ban on higher education for girls will extend into lower grades. (Video: AP)

The move comes as Afghanistan faces a dire humanitarian crisis, with near-universal poverty and more than two-thirds of Afghans expected to need humanitarian aid in 2023. International NGOs have played a critical role in providing basic assistance and keeping Afghanistan’s health-care system afloat, particularly after the Taliban took power last year. Afghan and foreign women have continued to work with these organizations since the Taliban takeover, and they are often uniquely positioned to provide aid to women in the deeply conservative country.

Saturday’s announcement came just days after the Taliban banned Afghan women from attending university, a decision that harms thousands of women nationwide and could further constrict their role in the workplace at a time when Afghanistan is struggling economically.

Representatives from the United Nations and international NGOs held an emergency meeting Sunday to consider suspending operations and plan a coordinated response.

The Taliban’s announcement did not specify whether the ban applies to foreign women working for NGOs, but previous restrictions have applied only to Afghan women.

Taliban spokesperson Abdulrahman Habib told Reuters that the decision concerns NGOs regulated by the coordinating body for humanitarian organizations in Afghanistan, which licenses about 180 local and international aid agencies but has no oversight over the United Nations.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement Sunday that he “will assess” the ban’s impact “on the EU’s ability to continue providing assistance to Afghans in need.”

“Together with other providers of assistance to the people of Afghanistan, the EU will have to consider what consequences this decision, and the recent decision by the Taliban to close universities for women, will have on their engagement with our countries and organizations,” he said.

One Afghan woman working for an international organization in Kabul said she burst into tears when she heard the latest news, calling it “shocking and disappointing.”

“This is like losing our hopes,” she said. “We don’t have the opportunity to work — I am speechless.”

She said she received an email from the human resources department at her organization instructing her to work from home until further notice. She said she feels “lucky” to still be able to work at all, for now — even though it means she is forced to rely on the internet via her mobile phone and deal with the Afghan capital’s frequent electricity cuts. At the office, she had WiFi and a generator.

The woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said she is the main breadwinner in her family — supporting her elderly parents and her husband, who is just finishing school. She also covers the educational expenses of one of her young nephews. “I cannot even imagine” losing that income, she said.

The United Nations said Saturday that it was “profoundly concerned” about the order and would seek clarity from Taliban officials. “Any such order would violate the most fundamental rights of women, as well as be a clear breach of humanitarian principles,” the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in a statement.

“The U.N. in Afghanistan and its partners condemn the reported order and remind the de facto authorities that taking away the free will of women to choose their own fate, disempowering and excluding them systematically from all aspects of public and political life takes the country backward, jeopardizing efforts for any meaningful peace or stability in the country,” the statement added.

Ramiz Alakbarov, the U.N. secretary general’s deputy special representative for Afghanistan, called the order “a clear breach of humanitarian principles.”

He said U.N. offices had not received the letter from Taliban officials outlining the order, so it is unclear whether the new rule will apply to female employees of the United Nations. Regardless, the ban will impact U.N. projects, he said, since agencies rely on NGOs to implement many of their programs.

“Attending to the needs cannot be done without equal participation of women and men,” he said.

Female aid workers are vital in delivering badly needed aid, he said, since “you cannot send male staff to assess the needs of the households and to speak to women.”

Alakbarov said the United Nations will try to persuade the Taliban to change course, making clear that if women are not allowed to work, “we will not be able to assist.”

In a tweet, Amnesty International South Asia called the new order “yet another deplorable attempt to erase women from the political, social and economic spaces.”

Parker and Berger reported from Washington.