The U.N. humanitarian chief said Monday that he is awaiting a list of guidelines from Taliban authorities to allow Afghan women to work in the humanitarian sector, following a decree last month that has restricted their work.
"Let's see if these guidelines do come through; let's see if they are beneficial; let's see what space there is for the essential and central role of women in our humanitarian operations," Martin Griffiths told reporters at the United Nations in New York, following his visit last week to Kabul with the heads of several international aid organizations.
On December 24, the Taliban announced a ban on Afghan women working with domestic and international aid groups, leading some international NGOs to suspend their work.
Griffiths, along with a senior UNICEF official, the president of Save the Children U.S. and the secretary-general of Care International, went to Kabul last week, where they met with nine senior Taliban officials. Griffiths said they included the de facto foreign minister, economy minister, minister of interior, and the first and second deputy prime ministers. Since ousting the previous government in August 2021, the Taliban administration has not received any formal international recognition.
After the December 24 decree, the de facto health minister said it would not apply to his sector. There were also some exceptions made in the education sector, although women and girls have been banned since last month from attending school past the sixth grade.
"In addition to making clear our grave concern about the edict itself, we then also said, OK, if you're not rescinding the edict now, then we must expand these exceptions to cover all the aspects of humanitarian action," Griffiths said his delegation told the Taliban.
He said in their meetings, they were told that "such arrangements would be forthcoming" and they should be "patient."
"Everybody has opinions as to whether it's going to work or not," Griffiths said on whether the guidelines will be helpful. "Our view is that the message has clearly been delivered that women are central, essential workers in the humanitarian sector, in addition to having rights, and we need to see them back to work."
Afghanistan is currently in the midst of one of its coldest winters, which comes on top of severe drought, decades of conflict and economic decline. The U.N. says 28 million people are in dire need of aid, while 6 million Afghans are a step away from famine.
Local and international NGOs carry out 70% of the humanitarian response in Afghanistan, said Sofía Sprechmann Sineiro, secretary-general of Care International, who joined the news conference remotely.
"So let there be no ambiguity; tying the hands of NGOs by barring women from giving lifesaving support to other women, will cost lives," she said.
Without local women on their teams, humanitarians cannot provide services to millions of children and women.
"We won't be able to identify their needs, communicate to female head of households, of which there are many in Afghanistan, after years and years of conflict, and to do so in a safe and culturally appropriate way," said Janti Soeripto, president and CEO of Save the Children U.S.
She noted that women make up one-third of the 55,000 Afghan nationals working for NGOs in the country.
"Many of them are sole breadwinners. So if they don't work, they have no money to support their families," Soeripto added.
Griffiths said that without more exceptions to the bans it would be a "potential death blow" to many vital humanitarian programs in Afghanistan.
"The case has been made, and we are waiting for the judge to come out with a verdict," he said of their meetings with the Taliban officials.
The visit by Griffiths and his colleagues followed one by Deputy U.N. Secretary-General Amina Mohammed and the head of U.N. Women. They also met with several Taliban leaders and lobbied them to reverse the edict restricting access to education for Afghan women and girls.