Almost two months since the Taliban issued a decree banning Afghan women from working for non-government organisations (NGOs), many women and children are missing out on life-saving aid during the most severe winter in more than a decade and worst hunger crisis in Afghanistan on record, Save the Children said.
Following the ban, widows and single women said they were unable to access aid and often overlooked by men-only humanitarian teams because they do not have a male family member to collect the aid. Cultural norms and traditions prevent them from speaking with male aid workers.
A new assessment by UN Women shows 93% of surveyed organisations working in Afghanistan said the ban is impacting on their ability to access women with humanitarian assistance.
Seima*is a 26-year-old widow with four children whose husband died from COVID-19 two years ago, leaving her with no mahram or male guardian to escort her when she leaves her home – a requirement now widely enforced by the Taliban. Seima said:
“Humanitarian aid is now mainly delivered by men. If we go and ask for assistance, community elders ask us to send a man to collect the aid. They won’t let us take it because we’re women. I don’t know why they won’t give us the aid. We have tried several times.
“If there’s only male aid workers, they will not understand how we suffer, and they will not be allowed to come to our home and to see how we are suffering. And we won’t be able to receive the assistance. If they’re not aware of our situation, we won’t be added to the [aid distribution] lists.
“I cannot share my story with men. It’s very hard. Men cannot solve all problems. Men can solve problems with men. But we need women to help women. We want women to come and provide us with assistance. I call on the government to allow women to work again, especially in the humanitarian sector.”
Save the Children – along with other organisations – paused activities in the wake of the ban, because female staff are essential for the safe and effective delivery of services and are crucial for reaching women and girls. In addition, almost half of Save the Children’s workforce in Afghanistan are women.
Although some activities have restarted where assurances have been received for female staff to safely resume work, mainly in health and education, more than 50% of Save the Children’s operations are still on hold, including essential cash distributions that help families meet basic needs, water, sanitation and hygiene activities and child protection services.
The ban on female NGO workers could not have come at a worse time for Afghanistan as the country faces a catastrophic humanitarian crisis, with economic downturn and severe drought causing food prices, unemployment and poverty to skyrocket.
Every two in three people in Afghanistan – a staggering 28 million children and adults – need urgent humanitarian aid to survive.
Women and children are disproportionately impacted by the crisis. Households supported by women have much lower incomes compared to families supported by men, and 96% of female headed households aren’t eating enough food due to the restrictions on women and girls.
David Wright, Save the Children’s Chief Operating Officer, said:
“The scale and severity of the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Almost 20 million children and adults are facing extreme hunger. Many families now only survive on bread and water for weeks at a time.
“Children are struggling to survive a freezing, miserable winter. Some are dying as temperatures plummet well below -20 degrees Celsius. Heating homes is out of the question for ordinary families and parents cannot even afford blankets or warm winter clothes.
“The ban on female NGO workers is only driving up the needs of women and children. We’ve said right from the start that women are essential for aid delivery and that without them millions of women and children will be cut off from lifesaving aid. Our worst fears are now being confirmed with reports from women like Seima* who are missing out on vital support.
“The Taliban must completely reverse the ban and allow NGOs to fully resume activities with female and male staff. We also call on all humanitarian agencies in Afghanistan to ensure all activities are conducted with female and male teams, and urge donor countries to refrain from any commitments to reduce or freeze much needed flexible funding for Afghanistan.
“This is not the time for the international community, and donor governments in particular, to turn their backs on Afghanistan.”
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NOTES TO EDITORS
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
Save the Children has worked in Afghanistan since 1976 to deliver life-saving services to children and their families across the country.
With the overarching ban still in place, the majority of Save the Children’s programmes remain on hold. However, the organisation has restarted some activities where clear, reliable assurances have been received from relevant authorities that our female staff – both our frontline and vitally important support staff – will be safe and can work without obstruction.
Some of the activities that have been restarted with female and male teams include mobile health teams, who travel to different communities each day of the week and provide primary, newborn and maternal healthcare, nutrition and mental health services, including treatment for malnutrition, and vital immunisation services to protect children from infection and disease. Save the Children has also restarted some community-based education classes with female teachers and education support staff.