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In Afghanistan, threatening the very survival of women

January 16, 2023

This Q&A was republished from a Fuller Project newsletter on January 16, 2023. Subscribe here.

Since seizing control of Afghanistan in 2021, the Taliban has hacked away at opportunities and freedoms for Afghan women. In May, we co-published a report with TIME on the increased restrictions on women in the workplace in Afghanistan, forcing them to adhere to strict dress codes that shroud them in head-to-toe anonymity. The country’s leaders have tried to crush any chance of intellectual growth and achievement for women and girls by blocking them from seeking higher education

Now, they’re threatening the very survival of women.

In late December, Taliban leaders issued a decree that bars Afghan women from working for non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The latest move may appear to be just another incremental erosion of women’s rights, but as our two guests explain, it’s a dagger to the heart of women’s ability to care for themselves and their families. 

Vicki Aken, Afghanistan country director for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), and Keyan Salarkia, director of advocacy for Save the Children Afghanistan, share their experiences after this latest directive. Though the Taliban has made an exception for some healthcare services, IRC and Save the Children have been forced to pause programs vital to women recipients and to female staffers, who continue to be paid although the Taliban forbids them from working. The harm has been immediate but it could get far worse. Aken’s and Salarkia’s observations are chilling and a call to action for those who value women’s lives.

The transcript has been edited for clarity and space.

Eva Rodriguez
Why does it matter that the Taliban has forbidden Afghan women from working for NGOs? 

Vicki Aken, International Rescue Committee
In Afghanistan, one cannot interact directly with female beneficiaries without female staff. So you could, for instance, give a food basket to a male head of household. You don’t know if that food got to the female in the household, because you can’t talk to her if you don’t have female staff. You don’t know if you’re missing out on female-headed households because you won’t have women on your assessment teams who can go and talk to those women. 

So without females on our staff. . . we’ve had to suspend shelter winterization support, cash support. We’ve had to suspend education, we’ve had to suspend livelihoods programming, we’ve had to suspend protection programming.

In addition to that, even if you were able to get permission for women to come to a food distribution [site], where there’s only male staff, you have a safeguarding issue. When you have very vulnerable women coming to an area where men are controlling all of the aid, that puts these women at risk of exploitation.

Are you talking about sexual exploitation? 

About sexual exploitation and you’re talking about exploitation in that they can say, “Okay, we’re gonna give you this portion of the aid, but we’re gonna keep this for ourselves.” That’s another form of exploitation.

Keyan, some folks may ask why women staffers matter to Save the Children. 

Keyan Salarkia, Save the Children
I keep going back to this example of female-headed households. I met [a woman] in Kabul who’d been displaced from the western provinces. She was, unfortunately, widowed, and she’d received last winter one of our cash distributions. 

She was able to keep the rent going and kept a roof over the heads [of her children] and was able to mitigate some of the really cold parts of the winter. She was able to purchase antibiotics for one of the girls who was struggling with a lingering, horrible health problem. And she was able to keep one of the elder children in school. 

In the circumstances we’re in now, she wouldn’t have been able to safely access that support.

I read a piece in which an Afghan woman was quoted as saying, ‘if we can’t get the help we’ve received in the past, I may have to sell one of the children.’ Is that a serious concern? 

That’s a very serious concern. We saw a significant increase in negative coping mechanisms like child labor or selling one of your children or selling a kidney. That’s actually happening. We saw a huge increase in that with the economic crisis that happened with the freezing of assets and the sanctions [after the Taliban takeover in August 2021.] 

So imagine a female head of household who has no way to earn an income and no access to assistance because there are no women [on an NGO’s staff.] Unfortunately, that’s a very common coping mechanism for women. And no judgment there, because it’s that or the entire family dying, is the way they’re looking at it. 

That’s a horrible choice for any human being to have to make.

I’d say the same for [child] marriage. In August, when we were putting together findings on how things have changed over the [last year of Taliban control] I think it was around one in 10 children had been [offered in marriage.] And that’s before this kind of further deterioration. 

And with education, for example, because of the existing ban and restriction on girls’ [higher] education, although they were able to continue at primary school, we were encountering lots of households saying, if there’s no route to progress through the higher levels of education, why continue? Why don’t we just look at maybe work or other options? Every day that goes past, more children are exposed to some of those really worrying risk factors.

And it has a human cost for our [Afghan] staff, as well. NGOs are one of the largest employers across the country. And these jobs are not interchangeable. You need education, you need experience. 

Many of our [3,000] female staff are the sole support of their families. So if they lose their jobs, then their entire family can get on the verge of starvation. And now I’m seeing an increase in the “please help me get out of the country” – from women, typically.

The employment element is huge. If we lost the employment of all our [2,500] female staff, there’s no circumstance in which we would continue with male staff. So it’s also all our male employees that would be in the same position. 

The effects on the private sector are also big. If we agreed to do construction work as part of our water sanitation and hygiene, for example, the construction isn’t done by Save the Children builders; it’s done by a third party. If we’re not able to resume our activities in the normal way, there’ll be an impact.

Between our two organizations alone, you’re talking about millions and millions of dollars going into the private sector in the goods that we buy and [payment to] contractors.

What’s the way forward?

I see criticism when governments try to engage with the Taliban. Well, if you don’t engage with them, if you don’t negotiate, if you don’t take time to explain what it is that we’re doing on the ground and how we are complying with cultural standards or if we’re left here on our own as NGOs to do that, just us, it’s so much more difficult. 

If, for example, [governments] cut off aid, then they’re going to have to run it through the whole allocation process and the parliament and the Congress, wherever they are. It’s going to take months [to resume the aid]. In that time, we’re unable to help the women of Afghanistan. 

Yes, it’s frustrating. And yes, [the Taliban] keep coming out with one decree after another that is making it much more difficult. But it’s the long game that we have to stay in for.

If two months from now, nothing has changed as far as the NGO ban, what then?

If women aren’t able to take part fully across the full range of roles in our organization, then it’s not possible for us to operate safely and effectively. 

We would like to keep a footprint in the country, which is why we’re [continuing to pay Afghan women staffers even though the Taliban forbids them to work]. We’re doing this for our staff, to give our staff hope that they’re not being abandoned. We’re not here to create a Western agenda or anything like that. It’s just to provide assistance to the Afghan people.

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