Taliban further restricts women’s rights, forcing aid groups to halt work in Afghanistan

This weekend, the Taliban ordered that women can no longer work for non-governmental organizations, including relief agencies. Any such group that continues to employ women will lose its license, according to the economic ministry. Vicki Aken of the International Rescue Committee and former Afghanistan Parliament member Fawzia Koofi joined Lisa Desjardins to discuss the latest.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Taliban reconquered Afghanistan 16 months ago as the U.S. withdrew and previous Afghan government collapsed. Since then, the country has spiraled into economic and society-wide chaos. And now the Taliban treatment of women and girls is again a central issue.

    Here's Lisa Desjardins.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This weekend, the Taliban ordered that women can no longer work for any nongovernmental organizations, including relief agencies.

    Any such group that continues to employ women will lose its license, according to the Economic Ministry. In response, four of the largest international NGOs upon which the country depends for aid decided to suspend operations entirely, this days after the Taliban moved to block women from universities, effectively banning women and girls from middle school through college.

    For more, we turned to Vicki Aken, the Afghanistan country director at the International Rescue Committee — she's in Minneapolis — and Fawzia Koofi, who was a member of Parliament in Afghanistan and headed the Parliaments Women's Affairs Commission. She's also an author of the book "The Favored Daughter: One Woman's Fight to Lead Afghanistan into the Future."

    And she joins us from London.

    Thank you both. Very esteemed in this area.

    Vicki, I want to start with you.

    What is happening in Afghanistan right now? What kind of operations have you ceased? And what does it mean? What's the impact?

  • Vicki Aken, International Rescue Committee:


    The International Rescue Committee has been working in Afghanistan since 1988. We currently have around 8,000 staff. About 3,000 of them are women. We have ceased all of our operations in health, in emergency response, in education, and in economic development, until we can understand a pathway forward, because, as a humanitarian organization, we have to be able to serve both men and women equally.

    And, in Afghanistan, we cannot serve women unless we have women on our staff.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    So, Fawzia, we know that there is a being cut off now. There are thousands of workers who no longer have jobs to feed their family.

    I wonder, what is the reaction from the people you know in Afghanistan? And what do you think this means going ahead?

  • Fawzia Koofi, Former Afghan Lawmaker:

    The people are devastated, the people, not only women, men and women, because, definitely, one can live under poverty line and hunger, but with injustice and that level of gender apartheid, nobody is able to tolerate or accept.

    We have seen, since the Taliban seized power last August 2021, they have issued — with the latest decrees, they have issued 35 edicts and decrees to eliminate and literally erase women from the public sphere. The last one was banning women from working with international and nongovernmental organizations.

    These were women that were the breadwinners of the family. These were the women that lost their male members of the family. And they were basically supporting their family through the salary that they were receiving. So, the Taliban actually have announced war against women.

    And I must — I'm grateful for those organizations who protested. We need to really find a way out of this situation.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Vicki, as Fawzia was just saying, women were key, and especially in health care, which is some — a big part of what your organization does.

    Can you take me into what it means for no longer having health care clinics from NGOs, potentially, and what is the health care situation, the crisis that you have seen recently?

  • Vicki Aken:


    Well, with health care, as we know, in Afghanistan, there are many areas where women are only allowed to see women doctors or women nurses. And so it's absolutely essential to continue to have female staff in those areas. And this seems to be recognized, at least by the minister of health.

    The issue will be, can we continue to have our female staff go to clinics and arrive there safely? Without this critical care, many women and children may die without access to these services. But, even more importantly, as Fawzia said, these women that are — no longer have a job are their only — only breadwinners in their homes.

    So are their families going to starve to death because they can't come to work?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I know that you have seen increasing malnutrition on a devastating scale and Afghanistan.

    To all of this, the Taliban has said they're they have made this decision because women were not abiding by the dress code. Vicki, what do you say to that? What do you make of that?

  • Vicki Aken:

    I don't agree with that, because, in my own organization, women are abiding by the Islamic dress code.

    In rural areas, where we do much of our work, even under the republic, they have always dressed conservatively, because that's what you needed to do in those communities. So, it would be good to understand exactly what they mean by this.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And, Fawzia, this brings me to the question of, who is the Taliban right now?

    In negotiations that you participated in, the Taliban presented itself as a new, more modern, more moderate Taliban. However, there was a different Taliban when you were a younger women. Are they now the same? Is this a new Taliban? Or is this just as bad as before?

  • Fawzia Koofi:

    They have enforced the same policies that they were enforcing on women and girls when they were in power first time.

    What we had hoped was and what we had — tend to believe what they were saying during negotiation, that they have changed, that they would allow women to go to school and they would allow women to work. And, in fact, they clearly told me during negotiation that, from their perspective, women can become as high level as prime minister.

    I think they were saying that to get to power and, like, basically, trap — create a narrative, that we're all now trapped into that narrative.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Some people look at situations like this in the West and say, there's starvation. There is incredible oppression. Perhaps this is a time when the people will rebel and overthrow this kind of leadership.

    Fawzia, do you think that's realistic anytime soon?

  • Fawzia Koofi:

    Taliban, first of all, divided among themselves. Secondly, there is a huge level of opposition.

    Thirdly, they don't know how to govern. And I'm hoping, with the level of civic resistance that now is increasing day by day — and you know that not only women are now protesting. Men are also protesting and as — in very conservative areas, like Kandahar, like Herat. Male students were actually protesting against the Taliban's decision.

    So I'm hoping that, over time, all of this pressure will either make Taliban accountable or will pave the way for a better alternative than Taliban.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Vicki, in terms of the human toll of all of this, your organization estimates 97 percent of Afghanistan is at risk or already in poverty.

    How are Afghan families — what kind of measures are they having to take to try to survive now?

  • Vicki Aken:


    Many families are dealing with very negative coping mechanisms. Like, they're having to send their children to work or sell their daughters into marriage. I mean, we have even seen an increase of people selling body parts, like kidneys. Many of the men are trying to migrate, risking their lives to get into places like Iran to find work to support their families.

    And this leaves the women alone in Afghanistan. And how are we to reach them if we don't have female staff?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Fawzia, I see you nodding.

    And I wonder. You are someone who has fought for this country .You have survived assassination attempts have, been shot at because of your country and because of your vision for it. What is this moment like? We're hearing everything that Vicki just said.

  • Fawzia Koofi:

    Heartbreaking. It is really heartbreaking.

    I'm speechless sometimes. I don't have words to express my feelings, because let's not forget what is happening in Afghanistan against women. As Vicki said, if the male members are going to work, then the women member of the family cannot get out of their house without a mahram, which is a male companion.

    I lost my husband into this war. I lost my brothers. I don't literally have any man in my family. So, I was in — if I was in Afghanistan, I could not get out of my house until I don't find a mahram. Why should I find a male mahram?

    These are so illogical, and I think there is no logic to their decision. It's just showing the ugly face of the real image Taliban has.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Fawzia Koofi and Vicki Aken, we thank you so much for your time. We know how busy you are.

    Thank you for your work.

  • Vicki Aken:

    Thank you.

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