The United Nations mission in Afghanistan will hold talks on Wednesday with Taliban officials in Kabul “to seek clarity” on a new government ban that blocks women from working for the world body across the country.
Since seizing power in August 2021, the Taliban authorities have imposed a slew of restrictions on Afghan women, including banning them from higher education and many government jobs.
The increasing restrictions are reminiscent of the Taliban’s first government between 1996 and 2001 when the UN said they were responsible for repeated human rights violations — particularly against girls and women.
On Tuesday, the UN said the Taliban government had extended a ban on women working for non-governmental organisations to the world body.
“UNAMA received word of an order by the de facto authorities that ban female national staff members of the United Nations from working,” a spokesman for the secretary-general, Stephane Dujarric, told reporters, adding that the UN had heard “from various conduits that this applies to the whole country”.
The UN had so far been exempt from a December order for all foreign and domestic NGOs to stop women from working across the crisis-stricken nation.
Dujarric said no written order had yet been received, but that the UN was to hold meetings with the Taliban on Wednesday in Kabul to “seek some clarity”.
For UN chief Antonio Guterres, Dujarric said, “Any such ban would be unacceptable and frankly, inconceivable”.
“This is the latest in a disturbing trend undermining the ability of aid organisations to reach those most in need,” he added.
“Female staff members are essential for the United Nations to deliver lifesaving assistance,” he said, noting that the UN is working to reach 23 million people with humanitarian aid in Afghanistan.
– ‘Need women’ –
A foreign aid worker said the ban on UN women will have a huge impact.
“Women employees identify women beneficiaries, that’s how it works across agencies, and that work will be further affected with the extension of this ban to UN women staff,” he told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The UN employs around 400 Afghan women — the bulk of some 600 female staff members working in Afghanistan, according to UN figures. There are about 3,300 Afghans in total in the 3,900-strong UN workforce in the country.
“It’s very difficult to imagine how we deliver humanitarian aid without our female staff,” Dujarric said, noting that “obviously, given the society and the culture, you need women to deliver aid to women”.
After the ban was announced last year, several NGOs suspended their entire operations in protest, piling further misery on Afghanistan’s 38 million citizens, half of whom are facing hunger, according to aid agencies.
Days of discussions led to an agreement that women working in the health aid sector would be exempt from the decree, and UN staff, including those in the aid sector, were never beholden to the ban.
Last month, however, UNAMA chief Roza Otunbayeva told the UN Security Council she feared the Taliban government could extend the ban imposed on women working for NGOs to the UN’s women staff.
In a tweet, the agency earlier on Tuesday expressed “serious concern that female national UN staff have been prevented from reporting to work in Nangarhar province”.
Taliban government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP he was seeking information on the matter in Nangarhar.
Since surging back to power, the Taliban government has imposed an austere interpretation of Islam.
Authorities have barred teenage girls from secondary school, women have been pushed out of many government jobs, prevented from travelling without a male relative and ordered to cover up outside of the home, ideally with a burqa.
Women have also been banned from universities and are not allowed to enter parks or gardens.
UN special rapporteur on human rights in Afghanistan Richard Bennett said in a recent speech in Geneva that the Taliban authorities’ policy “may amount to the crime of gender persecution”.