The Afghan government on Saturday barred women from working in local and international humanitarian organizations, officials said, a move that threatens billions of dollars of aid that has kept Afghanistan from the brink of starvation amid an economic collapse.
The ban is the latest blow to women’s rights under a Taliban administration that appears to value eradicating women from public life over keeping the country from plunging further into a dire humanitarian catastrophe that risks the lives of millions of Afghans.
The edict, announced in a letter from the Ministry of Economy and confirmed to The New York Times by the ministry’s spokesman, warned that the ministry would revoke the operating licenses of any organizations that did not comply. It was unclear whether the ban would apply to the United Nations’ aid agencies, and to all women or only Afghan nationals working in aid organizations.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in a statement that the U.N. would seek to meet with Taliban leadership to receive further clarity on the edict.
“Any such order would violate the most fundamental rights of women, as well as be a clear breach of humanitarian principles,” the statement read. “This latest decision will only further hurt those most vulnerable, especially women and girls.”
Since the Western-backed government collapsed last year and the economy crashed practically overnight, Afghanistan’s longstanding malnutrition crisis drastically worsened. Across the country, millions of Afghans lost their jobs; the price of food soared beyond many families’ reach; and emaciated children flooded malnutrition clinics.
Today, nearly 20 million people — more than half of the population — are facing potentially life-threatening levels of food insecurity, according to a U.N. analysis. Of those, six million people are nearing famine.
Over the past year, billions of dollars in aid from humanitarian groups have kept the country from the brink of mass starvation, providing free food to millions of families that would otherwise go hungry and offering lifesaving medical care to millions of malnourished children.
Many humanitarian aid organizations consider the move barring female staff a red line in Taliban governance that could shut down their operations throughout the country, as donors and decision makers balk at the open discrimination against women in their ranks, according to aid workers.
The Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan
Closing operations would effectively destroy Afghanistan’s aid ecosystem and sever a lifeline for the record 28.3 million Afghans — or two-thirds of the population — expected to need some form of humanitarian assistance next year, aid workers say.
Even for groups that remain in Afghanistan, the loss of women humanitarian workers could seriously hinder the delivery of aid, particularly to women in need. In many parts of the country, women typically only interact with men in their family and would be unable to directly receive aid — like food parcels or medical care — from male aid workers.
Hours after the decree was announced, a few international aid groups were discussing immediately suspending their operations in the country until further notice. John Morse, country director for DACAAR, a Danish nonprofit, said he would close his office on Sunday to discuss the consequences of the ban with his senior leadership.
“I think the big discussion is solidarity” among N.G.O.s and trying to press the Afghan government to reverse the decree, he said.
The edict comes less than a week after the Afghan government barred women from attending private and public universities, crushing the hopes of millions of girls who have watched as the rights they grew up with under American occupation have been slowly erased since the Western-backed government collapsed. In March, the new government also reneged on promises to allow girls to attend public high schools.
The moves further signaled that the Taliban’s leadership has cast aside any intent to moderate, and is determined to reinstitute the hard-line rule that the group maintained during its first stretch in power, in the 1990s.
Both announcements also underscore how ideological hard-liners within the Taliban movement, including its supreme leader, Sheikh Haibatullah Akhundzada, have increasingly imposed their influence over those who have urged moderation in order to maintain engagement with the international community.
Stoking fears that the authorities plan to further roll back women’s rights, security forces in the capital, Kabul, this week held meetings with school principals, teachers and administrators of private education centers, instructing them to shut down their winter courses for all girls — including those in primary schools — and send home their female teachers, according to six education professionals across five districts in Kabul.
Schools are currently on winter break but many students have been attending supplementary courses at private schools and education centers before the spring semester begins next year.
When asked about the meetings, a spokesman for the Ministry of Education denied other reports that the government had officially banned girls from attending primary schools. But the meetings raised fears that the Afghan government may be laying the groundwork to further restrict girls’ education next year.
Taken together, the bans on women in higher education and Saturday’s ban on employment in N.G.O.s were a heartbreaking blow to women across the country, many of whom had worked to carve out a public role for themselves in Afghan society after the Taliban’s first regime was toppled in 2001.
For many Afghan women working for aid groups, their jobs were a testament to that two-decade-long fight. But their incomes have also become a lifeline for their families amid the economic crash and widespread joblessness.
“I am in shock,” said Maghfira Ahmadi, who works in the financial and administrative department of Doctors Without Borders in Kunduz, a commercial hub in northern Afghanistan.
Ms. Ahmadi said she is the sole breadwinner for her family since the Western-backed government collapsed last year and the new government stopped paying the pension of her father, who is a retired public-school teacher.
“I am very worried about the future,” she said. “I used to pay for everything for my family with my salary, but I don’t know what will happen to us.”