Humanitarian Needs in Afghanistan Deepen as Taliban Continues Ban on Women Working for NGOs, UN

FRONTLINE correspondent and "America and the Taliban" director Martin Smith speaks to Afghan women looking for aid in Kunduz, Afghanistan.

FRONTLINE correspondent and "America and the Taliban" director Martin Smith speaks to Afghan women looking for aid in Kunduz, Afghanistan.

April 25, 2023

After the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August 2021, the leadership said it was committed to women’s rights “within the framework of Sharia.” But then in short order, the Taliban began issuing restrictions dramatically shrinking the role of women in public life. Those restrictions include a ban on Afghan women working for non-governmental organizations — a ban that was recently expanded to include the United Nations.

Aid groups say the ban has hampered efforts to help Afghan people amid a crumbling economy, a widespread hunger crisis and natural disasters.

“It is a very, very difficult moment. It’s absolutely a crisis,” said Zahra Joya, editor of Rukhshana Media, a news agency in Afghanistan focused on issues facing women.

The ban has slashed the workforce of humanitarian organizations and threatened the incomes of women who worked for them — many of whom are the sole breadwinners of their families. With Afghan women accounting for about a third of NGO staff and a fifth of U.N. staff in Afghanistan, many programs are only operating partially with male staff or in sectors or locations where the Taliban has granted limited exemptions to the ban. U.N. officials have said the agency is “reevaluating its ability to operate” in Afghanistan. Experts say the ban could also strain international donors’ willingness to fund humanitarian efforts just as the U.N. called for $4.6 billion in aid.

In FRONTLINE’s new three-part documentary series America and the Taliban, directors Marcela Gaviria and Martin Smith trace how mistakes and miscalculations in the United States’ 20-year war in Afghanistan culminated in the Taliban’s return to power, the impact of America’s rushed exit and what it left behind.

“My home was destroyed in war,” one woman told Smith while they were filming outside the Ministry of Information in Kunduz. “I came here to get on the list for assistance.”

Another said she was a widow with young children and she was worried about food. But people at the ministry told them to leave, she said. “They are just taking everything for themselves. There is nothing for us.”

Here, FRONTLINE examines how the ban on women working at NGOs has affected the distribution of aid amid several humanitarian crises, its impact on Afghan women-led households and how it could influence international fundraising.

‘If We Don’t Have Women, We Cannot Talk to Women’

On Dec. 24, 2022, the Taliban issued a letter from the Ministry of Economy saying it would revoke the operating licenses of any NGOs that allowed women to work in Afghanistan.

In the immediate aftermath, many organizations scaled back programs. A week after the ban, a survey by U.N. Women of 151 NGOs in Afghanistan indicated that only 15% were fully operating, and all the NGOs “saw an impact on their ability to reach women.”

While exemptions to the ban in healthcare and primary education allowed some organizations to restart suspended programs with female staff, exemptions can be limited, conditional or uncertain. Some Taliban officials refuse to provide written permission for exempted female staff. People in the aid community are reluctant to share specifics when they are granted exemptions at certain locations, fearing that additional attention could lead to the Taliban shutting them down. In a follow-up survey, more NGOs were fully operational by March, but two-thirds said their female staff couldn’t come to work and the ban was still impacting their ability to reach women in need of aid, especially those facing gender-based violence.

Read more: Amid the Taliban’s Worsening Crackdown on Journalists, News in Afghanistan Is Forced to Adapt

CARE International, a humanitarian organization with 900 staff members in Afghanistan — nearly 40% of whom are women — restarted suspended health and primary education programs by February thanks to exemptions, but several other programs remain suspended. CARE continues to try and secure exemptions, said Mélissa Cornet, a humanitarian advocacy advisor at CARE based in Kabul.

With the help of donors, CARE has been able to keep all of its employees on payroll in Afghanistan, Cornet said. But not all organizations were certain they could keep women employed. In January, 84% of organizations surveyed by the U.N. said they would need to lay off female staff if the ban remained in place. A U.N. Women report released the same month called the ban a “death sentence” for millions of Afghan women, both those at risk of losing their jobs at NGOs and those unable to receive “life-saving” aid.

That aid is increasingly essential as nearly half of Afghanistan’s population is suffering from acute food insecurity. The country also endured a record-breakingly cold winter that killed more than 200 people and 225,000 livestock, as well as a series of climate catastrophes over the past year that damaged thousands of homes.

“For some poor families, it’s absolutely devastating,” said Joya, the editor of the Afghan news agency. She said life is “very, very difficult” for families that don’t have male breadwinners — a common occurrence in a country where families have lost husbands, fathers and sons after two decades of war. Nearly a quarter of Afghan households are led by women, according to a survey by the REACH Initiative released September 2022. “They don’t have enough food. They don’t have income,” Joya said.

Because women can’t interact with male aid workers under the Taliban’s social code, aid groups worry female-headed households and their families may be cut off from assistance.

“We cannot deliver a quality response without women aid workers,” Cornet said. “Afghanistan is still very conservative. If we don’t have women, we cannot talk to women because it’s highly inappropriate outside big cities for a man to just go and talk to a woman that he doesn’t know.”

When asked for their response to a humanitarian crisis unfolding under their leadership, the Taliban appeared unconcerned.

“People are feeling happiness,” Taliban leader Anas Haqqani told FRONTLINE correspondent Martin Smith in November 2021. “The issue of hunger and other problems will be solved in due time, God willing. There is nothing to worry about.”

The impact of the Taliban’s extension of the ban in April to the U.N. is not yet clear. A United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) statement on April 11 said the ban presents an “appalling choice” to the U.N. — whether to stay and deliver aid or uphold their humanitarian principles, which they said the ban violates by discriminating against women. The statement said the U.N. in Afghanistan is undertaking an “operational review” to determine next steps.

“If I were to imagine the U.N. family not being in Afghanistan today, I have before me these images of millions of young girls, young boys, fathers, mothers, who essentially will not have enough to eat,” Achim Steiner, the head of the U.N. Development Program, told The Associated Press on April 17.

Taliban’s Moves to Restrict Women’s Rights Threaten International Funding for Aid

In addition to the challenge of delivering aid, experts on Afghanistan say the ban and other moves by the Taliban could jeopardize fundraising for Afghan aid. As of Thursday, only 5.5% of the $4.6 billion the U.N. is asking the international community to commit to Afghanistan has been funded. That lags behind the 14.5% that has been raised for all humanitarian response plans for countries across the globe this year.

“The U.N. has asked for more money [for Afghanistan] than ever before,” said Graeme Smith, a senior consultant for the International Crisis Group. “And at exactly the same time, the Taliban have made themselves even more odious to the outside world with these horrendous bans that affect women,” he said. “It just doesn’t put the foreign donors in a giving mood.”

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the U.S. government watchdog on spending in Afghanistan, called on Congress in its Jan. 30 quarterly report to reconsider whether the U.S. can continue providing assistance “without benefiting or propping up the Taliban.” The Taliban collect taxes, licenses and fees in exchange for allowing the aid groups to operate, the report noted, and U.S. aid may unintentionally grant validity to the Taliban’s authority. In March, Rep. Michael McCaul, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, requested that SIGAR investigate how much the Taliban has collected from taxes and fees.

The U.S. is Afghanistan’s largest donor, the SIGAR report noted, since humanitarian operations are fueled by regular infusions of cash from the U.S. to the U.N. — which amounted to $1.8 billion in 2022. Whether the cash flow will continue at the same rate is unclear, but UNAMA reported in January that “if the volume of assistance that the U.N. is able to provide diminishes, the amount of cash shipped will be reduced.”

If the U.S.’s cash infusions to the U.N. in Afghanistan decreased by 75%, but the country still received donations of food and other goods, economic growth would decline to zero or 1%, according to the Crisis Group report.

Aid experts say it’s impossible to help the Afghan people without indirectly supporting the Taliban, and withholding aid unfairly punishes the country’s most vulnerable. If the Afghan economy improves, the Taliban will inevitably benefit as the de facto authorities, explained Ibraheem Bahiss, an analyst at the Crisis Group.

“That shows that the mantra of helping Afghans without helping the Taliban is impractical,” he said.

Women’s rights activist Yalda Royan argued that unless aid is withheld, there will be no pushback from the Afghan people against the Taliban.

“As long as the aid goes and the people have access to this money and this food […] there will be no resistance against the Taliban,” Royan said, who fled Afghanistan for the United States in the withdrawal. She suggested international donors should suspend aid to the country if the Taliban does not reverse the ban.

SIGAR’s report, however, noted that there is no guarantee that providing or withholding aid will shift the behavior of the Taliban. The Crisis Group report argued similarly, writing that it’s unclear whether the Taliban “would respond to financial incentives.”

Now, as unmet needs grow, Afghan women suffer through the fallout.

“The kind of urban educated women who work inside NGOs, inside the United Nations system, were overwhelmingly drawn from one side of the war. And they are now vulnerable because they’re on the losing side of the war,” said Smith, the Crisis Group consultant. “It is part of the very painful process of the nation reconciling with itself.”

Watch Parts One and Two of the documentary series America and the Taliban:

Julia Ingram

Julia Ingram, Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowship



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