Representing the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), they stressed that the world’s largest humanitarian operation – supporting some 28 million people in Afghanistan – simply cannot function without women staff.
The officials reported on their mission to the country last week, in the wake of the edict prohibiting Afghan women from working with local and international aid agencies, announced on 24 December.
Days later, the de facto Taliban authorities authorized women to continue working in healthcare.
A similar exception was made in education, though focused on the primary level as Afghan girls and women have been barred from attending high school and university.
A clear message
In their meetings with the Taliban, the IASC mission expressed opposition to the ban, which they hoped would be rescinded, and advocated for exemptions in all aspects of humanitarian action.
They were told that guidelines are being developed, and were asked to be patient, said Martin Griffiths, UN relief chief and the IASC chair, speaking during a press conference at UN Headquarters.
“I’m somebody who doesn’t like to speculate too much, because it is a matter of speculation. Let’s see if these guidelines do come through. Let’s see if they are beneficial. Let’s see what space there is for the essential and central role of women in our humanitarian operations,” he said.
“Everybody has opinions as to whether it’s going to work or not. Our view is that the message has clearly been delivered: that women are central, essential workers in the humanitarian sector, in addition to having rights, and we need to see them back to work.”
Women’s vital role
Humanitarians will require $4.6 billion to fund their activities in Afghanistan this year.
Three years of drought-like conditions, economic decline, and the impacts of four decades of conflict, have left roughly two-thirds of the population, 28 million people, dependent on aid, with six million on the brink of starvation.
Women comprise 30 per cent of the 55,000 Afghan nationals working for NGOs in the country, according to Janti Soeripto, President and Chief Executive Officer of Save the Children.
“Without women on our teams, we cannot provide humanitarian services to millions of children and women,” she said.
“We won’t be able to identify their needs; communicate to female heads of households, of which there are many in Afghanistan after years and years of conflict, and to do so in a safe and culturally appropriate way.”
Lives at risk
Furthermore, many women aid workers are themselves the sole breadwinners for their families, which means many more households will go wanting.
“We’ve made it very clear that humanitarian aid must never be conditional, and it cannot discriminate,” said Ms. Soeripto. “We were not there to politicize aid. We cannot do this work without women in all aspects of our value chains.”
The loss of these valuable workers also comes as Afghanistan is facing its coldest winter in 15 years, with temperatures falling to nearly -30 degrees Celsius, resulting in numerous deaths.
The IASC mission visited a clinic on the outskirts of the capital, Kabul, run by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and a local partner.
Critical health and nutrition services there are up and running again now that women staff are back on board, said Sofía Sprechmann Sineiro, Secretary General of CARE International.
The clinic’s staff also shared a horrific statistic, as 15 per cent of the children who seek help suffer from severe acute malnutrition.
“So, let there be no ambiguity. Tying the hands of NGOs by barring women from giving life-saving support to other women will cost lives,” she said, speaking from Kabul.
During their meetings with the de facto authorities, the humanitarian chiefs also pushed for the full inclusion of girls and women in public life.
Huge learning loss
More than one million Afghan girls have lost out on learning due to the order banning them from secondary school, which has added to losses sustained during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The university ban, announced last month, has further crushed their hopes, said Omar Abdi, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director for Programmes.
“We are very concerned about girls’ and women’s development and particularly their mental health. In 2023, if secondary school education remains closed, an estimated 215,000 girls who attended grade six last year will once again be denied the right to learn,” he said.
Despite the bleak outlook, Mr. Abdi pointed to a few positive signs.
Room for hope
Since the ban, some 200,000 girls continue to attend secondary schools in 12 provinces, and women secondary school teachers continue to receive their salaries.
“The officials we met in Kabul…reaffirmed that they are not against girls learning in secondary schools, and again promised to re-open once the guidelines are approved by their leader,” he said.
Meanwhile, the number of community-based education classes in private homes and other locations has doubled to 20,000 over the past year, serving some 600,000 children, more than half of them girls.
“These positive signs are the results of both the commitment from the de facto authorities and pressure from local communities to keep schools and community schools open,” said Mr. Abdi.
“As long as communities continue to demand education, we must continue to support both public and other forms of education, community-based classrooms, catch-up classes and vocational training.”