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Worldwide condemnation against the Taliban decision to ban women from working at domestic and international NGOs heightened on December 25, with at least three foreign groups saying they will suspend operations in Afghanistan.
The Swiss-based CARE, the U.S.-based Save the Children, and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRE) all said they were suspending aid operations in Afghanistan following the Taliban rulers’ announcement that all NGOs should ban women from working at their jobs or face losing their license to operate in the country.
“We cannot effectively reach children, women, and men in desperate need in Afghanistan without our female staff,” the three aid groups said in a joint statement.
Later, the New York-based International Rescue Committee (IRC), which has been active in Afghanistan since 1988, said it was “dismayed and disheartened by the latest Taliban edict” and that it too would suspend operations in the country.
Western nations and international organizations expressed condemnation of the Taliban move, with the United Nations saying the decision “takes the country backward” and the United States, Germany, and the EU among those assailing the action.
In a Twitter post, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid wrote that “American officials should stop interfering in our internal matters. All those institutions wanting to operate in Afghanistan are obliged to comply with the rules and regulations of our country.”
The Taliban on December 24 said in a letter from the Islamist group’s economy ministry that domestic and international NGOs should suspend all female employees because it said the women were not in compliance with regulations regarding the wearing of a hijab, or the traditional head scarf, in the conservative Muslim nation.
The decision, along with an earlier move to ban women from attending universities, sparked rare protests in the country against the hard-line Taliban rulers and caused consternation among the workers themselves.
“I was so upset when I heard about the Taliban decree that I couldn’t even sleep last night,” a woman in the central province of Daikundi who has been working for an NGO told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi. She asked that her name and exact location not be disclosed because of fears for her safety.
“I’m the only breadwinner in my family. We don’t have anyone else in my family who can work. My entire life depended on my work. [My family] doesn’t have any other income.”
She added that “it’s not only me who is in this situation. All my colleagues are distraught. All the women I spoke to are upset.”
“I can’t describe how concerned and hopeless we feel right now,” she said.
In its statement, the Norwegian Refugee Council said: “Without women driving our response, we would not have jointly reached millions of Afghans in need since August 2021. Beyond the impact on delivery of lifesaving assistance, this will affect thousands of jobs in the midst of an enormous economic crisis.”
Neil Turner, the NRC country director, told Radio Azadi that “this decision by the Taliban effectively means that we are not able to operate in the way that we need to operate to get assistance through to vulnerable people.”
“The Taliban have hamstrung the operations of more than 20 million people in desperate need of assistance…in Afghanistan.”
“We hope that this suspension will be temporary, of course,” he added. “And we will be trying to work with any authorities in any place in Afghanistan where they can give us written assurances that our female colleagues can go to work and can assist the vulnerable people in Afghanistan.”
CARE, which has provided aid services throughout the world since 1945, said it was “deeply concerned” by the ban.
It said that without women aid workers, “NGOs may not be able to reach women, girls, and families, cutting access to aid for half of a population already suffering from a hunger crisis.”
Since the Taliban seized power in August last year, Western officials and activists, along with some inside Afghanistan, have expressed deep concerns about women’s rights under the extreme conservative rule of the Islamist Taliban leadership despite their vow to protect rights.
Women’s rights were severely restricted during the Taliban’s first stint in power until they were driven from government by a U.S.-led invasion in 2001.