Taliban bars Afghan women from working for the U.N.

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Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers banned female Afghan employees of the United Nations from working in the country Tuesday, putting millions of vulnerable households that rely on the global body’s humanitarian operations at additional risk as the hardliners continue their systematic obliteration of women’s rights.

“Our colleagues on the ground at the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA, received word of an order by the de facto authorities that bans female national staff members of the United Nations from working,” Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for the U.N. Secretary-General, said Tuesday. “We are still looking into how this development would affect our operations in the country and we expect more meetings with the de facto authorities tomorrow in Kabul in which we are trying to seek some clarity.”

The U.N. asked all Afghan staff to halt work for two days, to give it time to communicate with the Taliban and seek clarity on the new ruling, U.N. sources told CBS News correspondent Pamela Falk.

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Dujarric, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ spokesman, said the U.N. chief would consider such a ban “unacceptable and frankly inconceivable,” and in a tweet the U.N. chief said himself that it would “inevitably undermine our ability to deliver life-saving aid to the people who need it.”

Taliban representatives did not immediately respond to CBS News’ request for comment on the matter.

Barring women from working for the United Nations was just the latest move by the Taliban undermining humanitarian organizations’ capacity to carry out vital aid work in the country, which was plunged into a grave humanitarian crisis after the Islamic extremist group retook control in the summer of 2021. It will also have a significant impact on the U.N. staff themselves, who are part of the dwindling female workforce in the country.

The circumstances in Afghanistan have been called the world’s most severe humanitarian crisis, with 28.3 million people in need of aid to survive. But the U.N. Office for Coordination of humanitarian affairs says less than 5% of the funding required to meet the immediate needs of Afghans has been donated, making it the world’s lowest-funded aid operation.

Of the 28.3 million people in need, 23% are women and 54 % are children, and given the strict rules under the Taliban on gender segregation, female aid workers have played a crucial role in reaching vulnerable, female-headed households.

Falk said Dujarric told journalists at U.N. Headquarters on Tuesday that the global body’s aid agencies in Afghanistan “cannot do it without women,” calling them “the backbone of our humanitarian operations there.” He said that of the nearly 4,000 U.N. staff in Afghanistan, about 3,300 are Afghan nationals, though he couldn’t say specifically how many were women. 

Internally displaced Afghan women stand in line to identify themselves and get cash as they return home, at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) camp on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan, in a July 28, 2022 file photo.

The “Taliban decision to ban Afghan women U.N. staff from working is another gross violation of their fundamental rights to non-disc, is against UN Charter & will seriously impact essential services for Afghans. I urge Taliban to reserve the decision immediately.”

U.N. Special rapporteur on human rights in Afghanistan Richard Bennett urged the Taliban to “reverse the decision immediately,” saying in a tweet that the move was a violation of the U.N. charter and would “seriously impact essential services for Afghans.”

Since taking power back in August 2021, the Taliban government has methodically reimposed the severe restrictions on women and girls that it enforced during its previous reign, which ended with the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

Last year the Taliban banned women from working in non-governmental organizations and barred girls from attending universities and even secondary schools after the age of about 12.

Regional political analyst Torek Farhadi told CBS News on Wednesday that the ban on women working for the U.N. likely came straight from the Taliban’s supreme leader, who “wants to concentrate power and weaken elements of the Taliban which would want to get closer to the world community.”

“The Taliban is becoming a reclusive and dictatorial movement as time passes – exactly the opposite of what they had promised the world” when it signed the political agreement with the U.S. that led to American forces pulling out of the country, Farhadi said. “The most extreme elements, including its top leadership, are not interested in connecting with the world community. This particular decision hurts the poor the most in Afghanistan; those who have no voice and have the most to lose.”

Activists and politicians called Wednesday on the U.N. Secretary-General to do more than issue further statements condemning the Taliban’s crackdown on women’s rights.

“The crisis in Afghanistan is among the world’s worst… as U.N. Secretary-General, you have the power to make real difference beyond words & condemnation. We urge you to take decisive action,” said Mariam Solimankhail, a former member of Afghanistan’s parliament who was forced out of the job under the Taliban.

“Mr. Secretary General, it is time that the U.N. Security Council unites under your leadership & look at the Human Rights crisis beyond just statements. I urge you to convene a meeting and listen to the women as they have specific recommendations about their country,” said Fawzia Koofi, another female former parliamentarian.

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