Aid agencies suspend Afghanistan operations after Taliban bar female NGO workers

Save the Children halt operations as hardline rulers warn non-profit groups will be closed for employing women

Women have been protesting in Kabul over restrictions being introduced by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Getty Images
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Aid agencies including Save the Children have suspended operations in Afghanistan after the Taliban barred women from working for foreign non-governmental organisations.

On Sunday, after the hardline rulers warned organisations their operating licences will be suspended if they continue to employ women, Humanitarian Country Team met in Kabul to discuss how to respond. The group comprises top UN officials and representatives of dozens of Afghan and foreign NGOs.

A joint statement was released by the Norwegian Refugee Council, Save the Children and CARE.

"We cannot effectively reach children, women and men in desperate need in Afghanistan without our female staff," the statement read.

"Whilst we gain clarity on this announcement, we are suspending our programmes, demanding that men and women can equally continue our lifesaving assistance in Afghanistan."

Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, called the decision a "humanitarian red line".

Dozens of organisations work across remote areas of Afghanistan and many of their employees are women, with several warning the ban would stymie their work.

"The ban is going to impact all aspects of humanitarian work as women employees have been key executors of various projects focussing on the country's vulnerable women population," said a top official of a foreign NGO in Kabul.

The economy ministry, which issues the licences, said it had received "serious complaints" that women working in NGOs were violating a strict dress code that the theocracy insists women adhere to.

On Saturday, the Taliban's Economy Minister Qari Din Mohammed Hanif announced the ruling in a letter.

The European Union, a major funder of aid organisations that work in Afghanistan, denounced the latest ban.

"The EU strongly condemns the Taliban's recent decision to ban women from working in national and international NGOs," a spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said.

"We are assessing the situation and the impact it will have on our aid on the ground."

The International Rescue Committee said its more than 3,000 female staff in Afghanistan were "critical for the delivery of humanitarian assistance" in the country.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said women were "central to humanitarian operations around the world" and that the ban would be "devastating" to Afghans.

The latest ban comes as the Taliban also barred female students from attending universities on Tuesday, effective immediately.

Afghan women have since demonstrated in major cities against the ban.

Witnesses in the western city of Herat said about two dozen women were heading to the provincial governor’s house to protest against the ban on Saturday, chanting “education is our right”, when they were pushed back by security forces.

The same day, Taliban forces used a water cannon to disperse groups of female demonstrators.

There has been widespread international condemnation of the university ban.

An official in the Taliban administration, Minister of Higher Education Nida Mohammad Nadim, spoke about the ban for the first time on Thursday in an interview with Afghan state TV.

He said the ban was necessary to prevent the mixing of genders in universities and because he believes some subjects being taught breached the principles of Islam.

He said the ban would be in place until further notice.

Updated: December 25, 2022, 3:35 PM