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UN halts Afghan support programmes after Taliban bans female aid workers

A Taliban fighter stands guard as a woman walks past in Kabul, Afghanistan - Ebrahim Noroozi/AP
A Taliban fighter stands guard as a woman walks past in Kabul, Afghanistan - Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

The United Nations has been forced to temporarily suspend numerous “time-critical” aid programmes in Afghanistan after the Taliban banned women from humanitarian work in the country.

Experts have warned that the move, which has been condemned by the international community, including the UK, will hinder the provision of vital aid services and endanger the lives of millions of Afghans.

Several UN agencies and humanitarian groups said in a joint statement on Wednesday that women’s “participation in aid delivery is not negotiable and must continue”.

“Banning women from humanitarian work has immediate life-threatening consequences for all Afghans. Already, some time-critical programmes have had to stop temporarily due to lack of female staff,” the statement read.

“We cannot ignore the operational constraints now facing us as a humanitarian community … we foresee that many activities will need to be paused as we cannot deliver principled humanitarian assistance without female aid workers.”

An Afghan boy recovers at a Medecins Sans Frontieres hospital in Kunduz province, north of Kabul, Afghanistan - Rahmat Gul/AP
An Afghan boy recovers at a Medecins Sans Frontieres hospital in Kunduz province, north of Kabul, Afghanistan - Rahmat Gul/AP

Samira Sayed Rahman, a communication and advocacy coordinator for the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Afghanistan, said women and girls have been “disproportionately affected” by the return of the Taliban and its oppressive policies.

“Without female humanitarian workers, we will be simply unable to reach them,” she told The Telegraph. “If this ban continues, we will see more and more deaths...”

The Taliban’s ban has forced tens of thousands of female aid staff out of work, with the regime under intense pressure to reverse its decision.

Ministers from 12 countries, including UK foreign secretary James Cleverly, said the regime’s “reckless and dangerous order” has put at risk millions of Afghans who rely on humanitarian assistance for their survival.

Aid agencies have warned that, under the ban, they cannot provide vital services to women without female staff or doctors.

“It is going to have grave humanitarian implications,” Miss Rahman said. “The female aid workers have access to populations that male employees can’t reach. So their participation in aid delivery is not negotiable.”

Most vulnerable ‘cut off from aid’

Lingering conflict in Afghanistan has long made it difficult for women to access maternal healthcare in the deeply patriarchal country – an issue that is likely to be exacerbated under the current ban.

The violence has also produced a huge population of widows, while many men have abandoned their families and migrated for economic opportunities, leaving women to care for their households alone.

Following the Taliban’s return to power and the imposition of increasingly repressive policies, thousands of Afghan women and girls have been displaced, leaving them without money and food. In limiting access to aid, it’s feared these individuals could die of starvation.

“All of these are the most vulnerable communities and they are essentially cut off from aid right now,” Miss Rahman said.

The ban also means that thousands of Afghan women will no longer have access to a steady income, she added, “including the 3,000 female staff in our organisation”.

The UN’s top official in Kabul has met with the Taliban to discuss the ban and its consequences for humanitarian relief efforts.

It comes after the regime controversially suspended university education for women and secondary schooling for girls.

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