‘Burying us alive’

Afghan women devastated by suspension of aid under Taliban law

Two UNICEF staff members walk from a mobile health clinic back to their car at the end of a work day in Wardak Province, Afghanistan, June 11, 2022. (Photos: NYTimes)
For years before the Taliban seized power and the economy collapsed, Jamila and her four children had clung to the edge of survival. After her husband died trying to cross the Iranian border, she and her children moved to a camp for displaced people in northwestern Afghanistan and relied on aid organizations.اضافة اعلان

One group brought her oil, flour, and rice — food that kept her family from starving. Another gave her children pens and notebooks — the only supplies they had in primary school. A third vaccinated them against measles, polio, and other illnesses.

But when Jamila tried to arrange an emergency parcel of food in late December, the aid worker cut the call short, explaining that the organization had suspended its operations: Last month, the Afghan government barred women from working in most local and international aid groups, prompting many to stop their work. Jamila’s heart sank.

Fatima, 15 months, and her mother at Indira Gandhi Hospital’s overwhelmed malnutrition ward in Kabul, Afghanistan, June 18, 2022. 

“If they are not allowed, we will die of hunger,” said Jamila, 27, who goes by only one name, like many women in rural Afghanistan. “We are starving.”

Just weeks since the Taliban administration’s decree, women across the country are grappling with the disappearance of lifesaving aid that their families and the country have relied on since the country plunged into a humanitarian crisis.

It has been a dual tragedy for Afghanistan, and for Afghan women in particular.

For many women and girls who had already faced increasing restrictions under the new government — including being shut away from many jobs, high schools, universities, and public parks — the new edict removed one of the few remaining outlets for employment and public life. Given the conservative system that had existed in Afghanistan even before the Taliban took power in 2021 and amplified the most hard-line traditions, aid groups had relied on female workers to reach other women and their families, who were often segregated from any contact with outside men.
“This is not a choice. This is not a political decision. It’s actually reality. We cannot do our job if we do not have a female staff in place to work.”
Now, amid a malnutrition and health care crisis that has worsened as the Afghan government’s changes have turned the world away, many aid groups say the banning of those female workers has made it nearly impossible for them to work in the country. Those organizations described the move as a “red line” that violated humanitarian principles and that, if it remains in place, could permanently shut down their operations in Afghanistan.

The result is likely to be millions of Afghans left without critical aid during the harsh winter months. A record two-thirds of the population — or 28.3 million Afghans — are expected to need some form of humanitarian assistance this year as a hunger crisis looms over the country, according to United Nations estimates.

Women cross a street in front of Taliban fighters celebrating the first anniversary of the Taliban takeover of Kabul on August 15, 2022. 

“This is not a choice. This is not a political decision. It’s actually reality. We cannot do our job if we do not have a female staff in place to work,” Adam Combs, regional director at the Norwegian Refugee Council, said in a news conference late last month.

In recent weeks, UN officials have met several times with Afghan authorities to try to resolve the crisis, they said. But while Afghan officials have urged the resumption of aid programs, they have also indicated that the Taliban administration’s top leadership is unwilling to reverse the edict. Instead, the leadership has doubled down on accusations that female aid workers had not worn Islamic headscarves, or hijabs, in accordance with the new government’s laws on women’s attire, according to summaries of those meetings and other documents obtained by The New York Times.
“I don’t know the extent to which the Taliban understood the role of women in aid organizations and the crises that women will face after this.”
In a meeting in late December between UN officials and officials with the Taliban administration in Kandahar — the heartland of the Taliban movement and center of power of the new government — Afghan officials accused Western countries, particularly the US, of using aid as political leverage to push unwelcome Western values on the country, according to the documents.

Late last month, Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesperson for the Taliban administration, said on Twitter that all organizations within Afghanistan must comply with the country’s laws, adding, “We do not allow anyone to talk rubbish or make threats regarding the decisions of our leaders under the title of humanitarian aid.”

UNICEF staff members interview a woman about her health and her child’s health at a mobile clinic in the village of Alisha, in Wardak Province, Afghanistan, on June 11, 2022.

Afghan officials have said that the ban does not directly apply to the U.N. — one of the last Western entities to maintain a presence in Afghanistan. Still, most U.N. aid agencies work with nongovernment organizations to implement their operations — many of which had relied on female aid workers to reach women and families in need and have now suspended their programs.

Many international donors also require that women make up at least half of the people an aid organization reaches in order to receive funding.

For women across the country, the effects of the ban and the suspension of aid have been devastating.

The situation “is a disaster,” said Abeda Mosavi, an employee of the Norwegian Refugee Council who works with Afghan widows in Kunduz, an economic hub in northern Afghanistan. “I don’t know the extent to which the Taliban understood the role of women in aid organizations and the crises that women will face after this.”

Nurses treat a measles patient in the intensive care ward of a hospital in Herat, Afghanistan, March 6, 2022.

Since the ban was issued and the council suspended its operations, Mosavi has barely been able to sleep, she said, haunted by worries about the women she worked with to help make ends meet. Late last year, Mosavi met a widow with eight children who she said was trying to secure a quick marriage for her 13-year-old daughter — effectively selling her for a $2,000 dowry — to an older man to be his second wife. The woman felt it was the only way she could keep her other children alive and fed, but Mosavi persuaded her not to go through with it and put her in touch with a food aid program.

“I don’t know what will happen to her now,” Mosavi said, wracked with worry. “There are hundreds of cases like this.”

Other female aid workers — many of whom are the sole providers for their families — have themselves worried about how to put food on the table if the ban remains in place.

“If we are not allowed to work in NGOs, what should my children and I eat?” said Najima Rahmani, 42. Rahmani, a widow in the northern province of Balkh, was unemployed for six months before finding a job in November with Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance, an implementing partner that works with the UN’s World Food Program.
“My wound is always fresh. The wound of a woman in my situation is always fresh. It never heals.”
Those six months without a job were like a living nightmare, she said.

Her family could not afford electricity in their home. She had to borrow money from relatives — who were struggling themselves — to try to scrape together the university fees for her two sons and daughter.

The government’s barring of women from attending universities last month was devastating to her and her daughter. Then the ban on NGO work came down, and it felt not just like a new blow, but like a prison sentence, condemning them all to return to a life of begging and hardship.

“I am in a lot of pain,” Rahmani said, breaking down in tears. “My wound is always fresh. The wound of a woman in my situation is always fresh. It never heals.”

Since the fall of the Western-backed government in August 2021, the new authorities’ initial promises that women would have opportunities like employment and a public life — requirements for engagement with Western donors — have nearly all been reversed.

Women wait to register for food aid from the World Food Program in Kabul, Afghanistan, June 16, 2022. 

Today, women are barred from gyms and public parks and from traveling any significant distance without a male relative. They cannot attend high school or university. At checkpoints along streets and in spot inspections on farms, the morality police chastise women who are not covered from head to toe in all-concealing burqas and headpieces in public.

It has been a realization of some women’s worst fears about Taliban rule and a devastating loss for those who had hoped for much more than just an end to the war.

Habiba Akbari, who works for Afghan Aid, a British humanitarian and development organization, spent much of the past four years dodging sporadic fighting between the Western-backed government and Taliban forces to travel between her hometown in Badakhshan province and her university in Kunduz City.

Akbari graduated last year — just before the Taliban administration banned women from attending university — and secured a job with the aid group. Her monthly salary of 30,000 Afghanis (around $350) sustained her seven siblings and parents after her oldest sister and the family’s main provider was dismissed from her post as a prosecutor. But now her work has been suspended — and any hope she held for her future has vanished.

“The Taliban are burying us alive,” Akbari said.

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