Head of UN Women meets the Taliban over ban on women aid workers

Top officials of the United Nations met with Taliban authorities to talk about the ban on women workers from workplaces, including aid agencies, and raised concerns over its impact on ongoing relief programmes in the crisis-stricken country.

Amina Mohammed, the UN’s most senior woman member and Sima Bahous, the head of UN Women, arrived in Kabul on Wednesday and held a meeting with the acting foreign minister of the Taliban regime, which has imposed a brutal ban on women’s employment and stopped women and girls from attending high school and university.

Ms Mohammed also met with UN staff, aid groups, and Afghan women “to take stock of the situation, convey solidarity, and discuss ways to promote and protect women’s and girls rights”, deputy UN spokesman Farhan Haq said in New York.

Ms Mohammed “stressed the need to uphold human rights, especially for women and girls” and was “encouraged by exemptions” to the ban on female aid workers, Mr Haq said.

In December, Taliban banned women from working in aid efforts and several other workspaces until further notice, leaving crucial relief programmes in the country amid extreme economic crisis and famine in a lurch.

However, recently Kabul announced some exemptions that have allowed some work to restart in areas such as healthcare.

Ms Mohammed also “underscored the importance of continuing to be driven by principles”, Mr Haq told reporters.

On her way to Kabul, Ms Mohammed met officials in Turkey, Qatar, and Pakistan to discuss the situation in Afghanistan.

“Clear consensus was evident on the issue of women and girls’ rights to work and have access to education,” Mr Haq summed up.

While the UN spokesperson did not say which Taliban administration officials Ms Mohammed had seen so far, an Afghan foreign affairs ministry spokesperson said she met acting foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi.

In a statement, the Taliban’s foreign ministry said that Mr Muttaqi raised concerns over the lack of formal recognition of the regime, travel restrictions on Taliban leaders, and banking sanctions, adding that the concerns should be addressed by other countries.

The situation for women in Afghanistan has become worse in recent months as the Taliban government imposed a blanket ban on girls and women attending educational institutions or even socialising in public spaces, prompting protests and distress.

Later on, it increased the purview of the ban further on women workers, including those working in international relief programmes, limiting relief efforts significantly.

The Taliban said the orders, condemned globally, were justified because some women had not adhered to its interpretation of the Islamic dress code.

The ban stalled crucial aid programmes, the widest in the world, amid a harsh winter and severe economic distress.

Many aid groups, some of whom carry out humanitarian work under contracts with the United Nations, stopped operations following the ban.

In Afghanistan’s conservative society, the absence of female workers means women are almost entirely deprived of relief efforts.

“People are freezing and time is running out,” Ramiz Alakbarov, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator in Afghanistan, said in a statement.

“We need to build shelters now but, in this conservative society, if we don’t have female aid workers to speak to women in the families, we can’t do this work.”

Additional reporting by agencies