Taliban regulations that largely prohibit women from working as aid workers are exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. These nationwide restrictions mean that assistance will reach fewer families in need, particularly those headed by women.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has documented the agreements between aid organizations and the Taliban in each of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, indicating where female staff members will be allowed to operate. As of October 28, 2021, the documents, reviewed by Human Rights Watch, reveal that Taliban officials in only three provinces have provided written agreements that unconditionally permit women aid workers to carry out their duties. In over half the country, women aid workers face severe restrictions, including requirements for a male family member to accompany them during their work, making it challenging or even impossible for them to effectively carry out their responsibilities.
Heather Barr, associate women's rights director at Human Rights Watch, stressed the detrimental impact of the Taliban's severe restrictions on women aid workers. These restrictions are obstructing the delivery of much-needed life-saving aid to Afghans, particularly women, girls, and female-headed households. She emphasized that allowing unrestricted work for women aid workers is not a matter of agencies or donors imposing conditions on humanitarian assistance but is an operational necessity for delivering that aid.
The current crisis in Afghanistan, like most humanitarian crises, disproportionately affects women and girls. The two decades of war in Afghanistan led to the deaths of over 100,000 fighters, leaving many widows and children behind. Even before the current economic crisis and Taliban-imposed restrictions on women's access to paid work, widows faced significant challenges in surviving. Women with disabilities, whether married or single, are often seen as burdens on their families and are at a heightened risk of violence, both within and outside their homes.
Female aid workers in Afghanistan play a crucial role in reaching and assessing the needs of women and girls, especially in a society that is often deeply segregated by gender. The absence of women aid workers also means that women with disabilities have reduced access to rehabilitative services.
In some provinces, such as Badghis, the Taliban are not allowing women aid workers to work at all. In two other provinces, Bamiyan and Daikundi, women aid workers are only permitted to work during assessments but not in other stages, such as delivering aid. In 16 additional provinces, the Taliban require women aid workers to be accompanied by a male family member when they are outside the office. The most critical work women aid workers do often involves meeting with people in need, including women and girls, assessing their needs, identifying the risks they face, and ensuring that assistance reaches those who need it most. Mandating that women aid workers in these roles be escorted places an additional burden on male family members, essentially making them unpaid workers or, in many cases, rendering the woman unable to continue her job.
The Taliban have also restricted the types of work that female aid workers can engage in. In 11 provinces, women aid workers are allowed to work only in health and education programs, excluding them from other areas of humanitarian assistance, such as distributing food and other necessities, providing water and sanitation, and offering livelihoods assistance, in which women's participation is also crucial. An essential aspect of aid programming is safeguarding and assisting individuals, primarily women and girls, who may be at risk of gender-based violence. Without women workers, this task becomes nearly impossible. Since taking over Afghanistan, the Taliban have systematically dismantled systems designed to prevent and address gender-based violence.
As of October 28, only five provinces had written agreements from Taliban officials explaining the rules for women aid workers. In the absence of written guidance, individual Taliban members are more likely to harass women workers, impose additional restrictions beyond those agreed upon, and block women from working. Many women aid workers have been hesitant to go to work since the Taliban's return, fearing harassment on the streets and at their workplaces, as well as retaliation from Taliban members and sympathizers who oppose women's employment. Without written agreements, women workers will feel less secure and less able to continue their work.
Aid agencies have reported that the Taliban are increasingly imposing office requirements that strictly segregate employees by gender, with no interaction between female and male employees. Such restrictions harm both those in need of assistance and women employees, diminishing the effectiveness of agencies. Women aid workers who are excluded from critical discussions and decision-making within their organizations will likely face negative consequences for their careers, job retention, and morale.
Afghanistan is confronting a devastating and rapidly deteriorating humanitarian crisis. The country's economy is on the brink of collapse, driven by widespread income loss, cash shortages, rising food costs, isolation from global financial systems, and a sudden halt to development assistance, which previously made up at least 75 percent of the government's budget. Numerous reports indicate that families are being forced to sell their children, often girls, ostensibly for marriage, even at very young ages, to obtain food for survival or repay debts.
UN officials and several foreign governments have warned that the economic collapse will worsen acute malnutrition and could lead to outright famine. Surveys by the World Food Programme have revealed that over 90 percent of Afghan families lack sufficient daily food, with half reporting that they ran out of food at least once in the previous two weeks. One in three Afghans is already experiencing acute hunger.
In December 2020, OCHA estimated that half of all those over age 65 were in need of humanitarian assistance. At the time, UNICEF cautioned that an estimated 3.1 million children, or half of Afghanistan's child population, were suffering from acute malnutrition. In September, UNICEF's executive director warned that at least one million children "will suffer from severe acute malnutrition this year and could die without treatment." By mid-2022, it is projected that 97 percent of Afghans may fall below the poverty line, according to the UN Development Program.
Taliban leaders have been urging donors to provide aid funding for Afghanistan to address the unfolding crisis. However, the Taliban's restrictive policies are hindering aid from reaching those who need it the most. Human Rights Watch's Heather Barr emphasized that the Taliban must immediately allow all aid workers, both women and men, to perform their duties without restrictions. Failure to do so would place even more people at risk.
The humanitarian situation in Afghanistan is dire, with the economy teetering on the edge of collapse. Many Afghan families are grappling with dwindling income, cash shortages, skyrocketing food costs, and the abrupt cessation of international development assistance. Families are facing desperate circumstances, with some resorting to selling their children, often young girls, for marriage as a means of obtaining food for survival or repaying debts.
UN officials and several foreign governments have sounded the alarm, warning that this economic crisis will exacerbate acute malnutrition and could ultimately lead to famine. Surveys conducted by the World Food Programme reveal that over 90 percent of Afghan families do not have enough food for daily consumption, and half have run out of food at least once in the past two weeks. One in three Afghans is already experiencing acute hunger.
In December 2020, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that half of those over 65 years of age in Afghanistan were in need of humanitarian assistance. UNICEF also warned that approximately 3.1 million children, or half of the country's child population, were suffering from acute malnutrition. By September, UNICEF's executive director issued a dire warning, stating that at least one million children could suffer from severe acute malnutrition and potentially face death without timely treatment. Furthermore, the UN Development Program projected that by mid-2022, a staggering 97 percent of Afghans may fall below the poverty line.
Amidst this unfolding crisis, the Taliban has been calling for international aid funding to address the dire situation. However, their restrictive policies are preventing aid from reaching those who are most in need. It is imperative that the Taliban immediately allow all aid workers, regardless of their gender, to carry out their work without impediments. Failure to do so will put even more people at risk in Afghanistan.