Taliban ban on female NGO workers cuts off aid for widows and single women

Widows and single women are missing out on life-saving aid during the most severe winter in more than a decade and the worst hunger crisis in Afghanistan on record – all because of the Taliban’s ban on female NGO workers.

For these women, cultural norms and traditions prevent them from speaking with male aid workers, and without a mahram (male guardian) they are unable to collect desperately needed aid, Save the Children has reported.

The organization said that a new assessment by UN Women shows 93% of surveyed organizations working in Afghanistan said the ban is impacting their ability to access women with humanitarian assistance.

One of these women is Seima, a 26-year-old widow with four children whose husband died from COVID-19 two years ago. She has no mahram to escort her when she leaves her home – a requirement now widely enforced by the Taliban.

“Humanitarian aid is now mainly delivered by men. If we go and ask for assistance, community elders ask us to send a man to collect the aid. They won’t let us take it because we’re women. I don’t know why they won’t give us the aid. We have tried several times,” she said.

“If there’s only male aid workers, they will not understand how we suffer, and they will not be allowed to come to our home and to see how we are suffering. And we won’t be able to receive the assistance. If they’re not aware of our situation, we won’t be added to the [aid distribution] lists.

“I cannot share my story with men. It’s very hard. Men cannot solve all problems. Men can solve problems with men. But we need women to help women. We want women to come and provide us with assistance. I call on the government to allow women to work again, especially in the humanitarian sector,” she said.

This comes amid growing concern among NGOs who are unable to reach women like Seima – as female staff are essential for the safe and effective delivery of aid to women and girls.

Save the Children paused activities in the wake of the ban, but while the organization has resumed some activities after getting assurances from the Taliban that female staff can resume work, in the health and education sectors, more than 50% of the organization’s operations are still on hold.

Among operations still on hold are essential cash distributions that help families meet basic needs, water, sanitation and hygiene activities and child protection services.

This ban meanwhile comes amid a catastrophic humanitarian and economic crisis, severe drought, and skyrocketing unemployment and poverty rates.

According to Save the Children, every two in three people in Afghanistan – a staggering 28 million children and adults – need urgent humanitarian aid to survive and women and children are disproportionately impacted by the crisis.

The organization said households supported by women have much lower incomes compared to families supported by men, and 96% of female-headed households aren’t eating enough food due to the restrictions on women and girls.

Scale and severity of crisis is extreme

David Wright, Save the Children’s Chief Operating Officer, has meanwhile said that the severity of the situation is like nothing he has ever seen.

“The scale and severity of the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Almost 20 million children and adults are facing extreme hunger. Many families now only survive on bread and water for weeks at a time.

“Children are struggling to survive a freezing, miserable winter. Some are dying as temperatures plummet well below -20 degrees Celsius. Heating homes is out of the question for ordinary families and parents cannot even afford blankets or warm winter clothes.

“The ban on female NGO workers is only driving up the needs of women and children. We’ve said right from the start that women are essential for aid delivery and that without them millions of women and children will be cut off from life saving aid. Our worst fears are now being confirmed with reports from women like Seima who are missing out on vital support.

He in turn said the Taliban must completely reverse the ban and allow NGOs to fully resume activities with female and male staff.

“We also call on all humanitarian agencies in Afghanistan to ensure all activities are conducted with female and male teams, and urge donor countries to refrain from any commitments to reduce or freeze much needed flexible funding for Afghanistan.

“This is not the time for the international community, and donor governments in particular, to turn their backs on Afghanistan.”