Afghan women determined and frustrated after NGO bans Taliban

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Even before the Taliban prevented Afghan women from working in non-governmental groups, their forces visited the office of a local organization in the capital Kabul several times to check that female staff adhered to rules on dress codes and gender segregation. .

Already, the women in the office had redoubled their caution, hoping to avoid problems with the Taliban. They wore longer clothes and masks with the Islamic headscarf and kept separate from their male colleagues in the workspace and at meals, an NGO worker told The Associated Press.

“We even changed the hours of arrival and departure from our office because we didn’t want to be followed” by the Taliban, she said, speaking on the condition that her name, job title and the name of his organization are not used for fear of reprisals.

It wasn’t enough. On Saturday, Taliban authorities announced the exclusion of women from NGOs, allegedly because they did not wear headscarves or hijabs properly.

The decision prompted international aid agencies to suspend operations in Afghanistan, raising the possibility that millions of people will be left without food, education, healthcare and other essential services during the harsh winter months.

The agency coordinating development and relief work in Afghanistan, ACBAR, estimates that many of its 183 national and international members have suspended, stopped or reduced humanitarian activities and services since the order took effect.

These members employ more than 55,000 Afghan nationals, approximately one-third of whom are women. The agency says female staff play a vital role in NGO activities, providing humanitarian services while respecting traditional and religious customs.

Yet women in some grassroots organizations are trying to keep providing services as much as they can under the radar and paying their staff as long as donor funds continue.

The NGO worker, who has two masters degrees and three decades of work experience in the education sector in Afghanistan, wanted to go to the office one last time to collect her laptop but was warned against it by its director because there were armed Taliban outside the building. .

She is determined to continue helping others, even though she now works from home.

“It is my responsibility to reach out to women and girls and provide them with services,” she said. “I will work until the end of my life. That’s why I’m not leaving Afghanistan. I could have gone, but other women are looking to me for help. If we fail, all women fail.

Her NGO advises women on entrepreneurship, healthcare, social counseling and education. Its activities are in person in the capital, Kabul, and another province. It has helped 25,000 women in the past six months and hopes to help another 50,000 in the coming months, although how it will do this is unclear given that most of its permanent and temporary staff are women.

Although initially promising more moderate rule, the Taliban are implementing their interpretation of Islamic law, or Sharia.

They banned girls from middle school, high school, and university, restricted women’s access to most jobs, and ordered them to wear head-to-toe clothing in public. Women are also banned from parks, gymnasiums and other public spaces.

The NGO worker said many educated women left after the Taliban took over in August 2021, costing Afghan civil society much of its capacity and expertise.

“They have been targeting women from the start. Why do they make enemies of women? Don’t they have wives, sisters and mothers? she said. “The women we help don’t have computers, they don’t have Zoom. It’s hard to do this job without being one-on-one. But I hope we can resume our work in the coming weeks. »

Another employee of an Afghan NGO predicts that donor funding will stop due to the decline in women’s participation. She also spoke on the condition that she not be identified to protect herself, her colleagues and partner organisations.

She is frustrated but not shocked by the Taliban’s latest order. His pragmatism leads him to believe in the importance of engaging with the Taliban as the de facto rulers of the country. “We pay our electricity bills to the Taliban, we get our identity cards from them. More Afghans need to find ways to sit down with them. We need to tell them that these problems are not foreign-led.

But others know that there are limits to dialogue with former insurgents.

“They don’t care about the rights that Islam gives to women, it doesn’t work on them,” said a Kabul-based woman who heads a national NGO. “I know the importance of women’s work and its impact on our female beneficiaries.

She did not want to give out her personal information for fear of being identified, and her father became more protective of her following Taliban restrictions.

She leads an organization that has worked in Afghanistan for decades. It employs 242 people, including 119 women.

Its immediate challenges are prosaic, with only a few hours of electricity a day it is difficult to work from home. She is lucky to live close to the office and can get there fairly quickly and discreetly when needed, unlike her more distant employees. He misses the comfort of working in an office and the collegiality that comes with it.

Enforcement of the ban has so far not been universal, they and others said. It is stricter on women in city offices, but some women in rural areas, especially those on the ground providing essential health care and humanitarian aid, have been able to operate. She said provinces outside Kabul and Kandahar, the spiritual home of the Taliban, are more positive about the work of NGOs and that gives her hope.

Its donors are understanding, maintaining the salaries and running costs of the NGO. Now it’s a waiting game, she said, to see how the United Nations and the rest of the international community will respond to the Taliban’s latest order.

“I just have to survive in this current situation,” she sighs.

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