Dilemmas for aid agencies working in Afghanistan under Taliban’s gender apartheid rule.

In late December 2022, the Taliban announced that aid organizations would no longer be allowed to employ women. It was the next step in a series of measures that make it increasingly impossible for Afghan women to study, live or think independently. In response, many aid organizations have stopped their work, others are continuing. What will be the effect of all this and where are the boundaries for continuing assistance?

The consequences of the ban are disastrous. After the takeover of power by the Taliban in 2021, the economy of Afghanistan collapsed, the government currently hardly functions and health services have disappeared except for aid-managed programmes. Drought, floods and last summer’s big earthquake all made matters worse. Current estimates are that 20 million people depend on humanitarian assistance and the ban on women’s employment will certainly cost lives. In addition, jobs are very rare in today’s Afghanistan. Many women who work for aid organizations are the sole breadwinner in their family. These families will face poverty if these women resign from their jobs.

UN diplomats and aid organizations are on high alert and they are feverishly meeting to seek strategies that enable them to stand up for human rights and yet maintain aid  as much as possible. The UN Security Council, as well as many countries, has also condemned the ban. Global humanitarian aid coordinator, Martin Griffiths, will be travelling to Afghanistan in the coming weeks in an attempt to persuade the government to change its mind. For the time being, however, the Taliban do not seem sensitive to outside pressure.

There are currently about a hundred aid organizations that have stopped their work. Some agencies take a principled approach: they condemn excluding female employees as a gross violation of human rights and are reluctant to strike deals with the Taliban about the provision of aid. Other organizations emphasize the logistical implications of the ban: aid is not possible in Afghanistan without women, because only women can reach the vulnerable women and children who need it most.

There are some organizations that can continue their work without disruption, including Médecins sans Frontières (MSF). Their employees are not yet affected by the new measure. The Taliban appear to be divided over the matter. The ban was issued by the Afghan Ministry of Economic Affairs, which is under the influence of the hardliner Taliban. Most national aid organizations are registered under this ministry. This implies that the ban also affects the programmes of foreign aid organizations that work through local partners. On the other hand, foreign organizations that implement their own programmes, such as MSF, fall under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has not adopted the measure. The Ministry of Health is also holding off the ban for the time being.

There are voices advocating that the aid organizations should draw a line and stop talking to the Taliban. However, many organizations will continue to look for a humanitarian space to uphold assistance in order not to let the population down. They are prepared to negotiate at a local level, where it is expected that some rulers may apply the ban more leniently. This is a common humanitarian strategy: negotiate where necessary and continue to look for ways to continue to provide aid. A disadvantage of this strategy may be that the Taliban can play off aid organizations against each other.

The ban is still fresh and evolving – new announcements are  expected soon. As far as I am concerned, there is one red line: organizations cannot agree to provide assistance when women are excluded from their services. Aid agencies, the UN and international governments should convey a common message: Aid that is reserved for men only is a no-go as this would contribute to the system of gender apartheid that prevails under the Taliban.

This blog is based on research that was supported by the European Research Council (ERC) Horizon 2020 programme [Advance grant number 884139].

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Dorothea Hilhorst is professor of Humanitarian Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University.

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