The UN could be forced to suspend operations in Afghanistan if the Taliban does not lift a ban on women working for humanitarian groups.
Martin Griffiths, the UN's Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Co-ordinator, said he “cannot see” how it could continue its work under the conditions.
“Without women working we can’t deliver for the people who are in fact the primary object of humanitarian assistance, women and girls,” he told Radio 4’s Today show.
“It’s beyond rights. It’s also practical.”
The Taliban issued an order on December 24 barring foreign and domestic humanitarian organisations in Afghanistan from employing women.
It said groups which fail to comply face having their licenses revoked, prompting a coalition of 11 NGOs to suspend their operations in the immediate aftermath.
Afghanistan is currently the only country in the world where girls are banned from attending school because of their gender.
Women had gained rights after the 2001 invasion of the country, which toppled the original Taliban regime.
But they have been steadily stripped away after the fall of Kabul in 2021.
Since then, women have been banned from pursuing higher education and virtually excluded from public life, forced to cover their faces and travel long distances only with a male relative. They have even been barred from attending amusement parks.
The UN Security Council is expected to meet privately next week to discuss the ban on women working for humanitarian groups.
“Without women working in our humanitarian agencies, all of us, NGOs, UN, other agencies, we can’t do the job we are there for,” said Mr Griffiths.
“And we are there for 28 million people in Afghanistan. It’s the largest humanitarian aid programme in the world. And so it’s a body blow against our capacity to deliver what we have in mind.
“If you don’t work with and through women, you will not reach those who are most affected, which is women and girls. So we need women to work. They have a right to as well.”
However, he said the UN would do “everything it could” to stay and deliver aid to the people.
“There are parts of the country now where women can work,” he said.
“So we will be doing everything we can to work around and make things work. I don’t want to speculate at this point as to what happens if the edict is enforced universally. But I have to say I can’t see how we will continue.”
Women describe their experiences since the Taliban took over — in pictures
Fawzia Koofi, a former Afghan MP and one of the few women who negotiated with the Taliban during the US-sponsored talks in 2020, said the impact of the ban has been immediate on women, many of whom were the breadwinners of the family.
Ms Koofi told Radio 4 she spoke to some of the women about why there is no nationwide reaction by men in the country to the news.
One of their responses was that “males are so disappointed that this is not going to change any time soon because the international community is not exerting the right level of pressure,” she said.
“So instead of facing the Taliban, or raising, resisting this, they are actually thinking of leaving the country. It’s a very dire situation.”
She said the Taliban had been “benefiting” from the humanitarian aid due to the fact they have been controlling the way it was channelled.
Ms Koofi said: “I think it’s time for the world to give them some level of pressure and tell them that this is not going to last forever. They must reverse their decisions otherwise the aid should stop, at least even if it’s temporary.
“They need to be accountable and that’s why temporarily the measure could be unless the women don’t go to the office and work and girls don’t go to universities, the Taliban will not receive humanitarian aid.”
Mr Griffiths denied that the Taliban had benefitted from the assistance, saying all aid and money is “monitored, audited, inspected and vetted”.
“We spend a huge amount of time doing this and we are very experienced in it,” he said.
Mr Griffiths is scheduled to visit Afghanistan in the coming weeks and will seek to hold high-level meetings with the Taliban.