The United Nations said Tuesday it is reviewing its presence in Afghanistan after the Taliban barred Afghan women from working for the world organization — a veiled suggestion the U.N. could move to suspend its mission and operations in the embattled country.
Last week, Taliban took a step further in the restrictive measures they have imposed on women and said that Afghan women employed with the U.N. mission could no longer report for work. They did not further comment on the ban.
The U.N. said it cannot accept the decision, calling it an unparalleled violation of women’s rights. It was the latest in sweeping restrictions imposed by the Taliban since they seized power in Afghanistan in August 2021 as U.S. and NATO troops were withdrawing from the country after 20 years of war.
The 3,300 Afghans employed by the U.N. — 2,700 men and 600 women — have stayed home since last Wednesday but continue to work and will be paid, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said. The U.N.’s 600-strong international staff, including 200 women, is not affected by the Taliban ban.
The majority of aid distributed to Afghans is done through national and international non-governmental organizations, with the U.N. playing more of a monitoring role, and some assistance is continuing to be delivered, Dujarric said. There are some carve-outs for women staff, but the situation various province by province and is confusing.
“What we’re hoping to achieve is to be able to fulfill our mandate to help more than 24 million Afghan men, women, and children who desperately need humanitarian help without violating basic international humanitarian principles,” Dujarric told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York.
In a statement, the U.N. said it “will endeavor to continue lifesaving, time-critical humanitarian activities” but “will assess the scope, parameters and consequences of the ban, and pause activities where impeded.”
Regional political analyst Torek Farhadi told CBS News earlier this month that the ban on women working for the U.N. likely came straight from the Taliban’s supreme leader, who “wants to concentrate power and weaken elements of the Taliban which would want to get closer to the world community.”
“This particular decision hurts the poor the most in Afghanistan; those who have no voice and have the most to lose.”
The circumstances in Afghanistan have been called the world’s most severe humanitarian crisis, and three-quarters of those in need are women or children. Female aid workers have played a crucial role in reaching vulnerable, female-headed households.
The Taliban have banned girls from going to school beyond the sixth grade and women from most public life and work. In December, they banned Afghan women from working at local and nongovernmental groups — a measure that at the time did not extend to U.N. offices.
Tuesday’s statement by the U.N. said its head of mission in Afghanistan, Roza Otunbayeva, has “initiated an operational review period” that would last until May 5.
During this time, the U.N. will “conduct the necessary consultations, make required operational adjustments, and accelerate contingency planning for all possible outcomes,” the statement said.
It also accused the Taliban of trying to force the U.N. into making an “appalling choice” between helping Afghans and standing by the norms and principles it is duty-bound to uphold.
“It should be clear that any negative consequences of this crisis for the Afghan people will be the responsibility of the de facto authorities,” it warned.
Aid agencies have been providing food, education and health care support to Afghans in the wake of the Taliban takeover and the economic collapse that followed it. But distribution has been severely affected by the Taliban edict banning women from working at NGOs — and, now, also at the U.N.
The U.N. described the measure as an extension of the already unacceptable Taliban restrictions that deliberately discriminate against women and undermine the ability of Afghans to access lifesaving and sustaining assistance and services.
“The Taliban is placing medieval misogyny above humanitarian need,” the U.K.’s U.N. Ambassador Barbara Woodward told diplomats last week after a closed Security Council meeting.