KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan government this week barred female Afghan employees at the United Nations from working in Afghanistan, according to U.N. officials, a move threatening one of the last lifelines of badly needed aid in a country where millions risk starvation and restrictions on women have hampered aid operations in recent months.
The decision this week comes just over three months after the Taliban administration issued a decree barring women from working in local and international aid organizations, many of which are involved in carrying out U.N. programs in Afghanistan. That decision led many organizations to suspend or scale back their programs across the country.
At that time, Afghanistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs assured U.N. officials that the decree did not apply to the United Nations. But in a meeting with U.N. officials this week, the ministry reversed course, saying the government’s supreme authority, Sheikh Haibatullah Akhundzada, had clarified that the ban extends to the U.N., and he instructed the government’s intelligence wing to enforce it, according to U.N. officials.
That news drew immediate condemnation from the United Nations, which instructed its nonessential male and female staff members to remain home as it pressed the Taliban administration to reverse the decision.
“This is a violation of the inalienable fundamental human rights of women,” a spokesman for the U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said in a statement. “Female staff members are essential for the United Nations operations, including in the delivery of lifesaving assistance. The enforcement of this decision will harm the Afghan people, millions of whom are in need of this assistance.”
The Taliban administration’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The ban is the latest blow to women’s rights under a Taliban administration whose top leadership has prioritized policies erasing women from public life over meeting the international community’s human rights standards and ensuring badly needed aid continues to flow.
In recent months, the government has barred girls from receiving education beyond the sixth grade, banned women from going to public spaces like parks and prohibited them from traveling any significant distance without a male relative. The country is one of the most restrictive in the world for women, according to human rights monitors, who warned last month that the government’s policies toward women could amount to a crime against humanity.
Those policies have overshadowed the government’s efforts to eradicate corruption, carry out public works projects and rid the country of drug use in the eyes of the West.
They have increasingly isolated the country on the world stage, drawing condemnation from other Islamic governments like Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the edicts barring women from aid organizations have exacerbated the humanitarian crisis gripping Afghanistan since the Western-backed government collapsed last year.
In the year and a half since the Taliban seized power, joblessness has become widespread, the price of food has soared and malnutrition has drastically worsened across the country. Today, nearly 20 million people — more than half the population — are facing potentially life-threatening levels of food insecurity, and of those, six million are nearing famine, according to a U.N. analysis.
The decree in December barring women from working for local and international aid organizations prompted many of the groups to scale back their operations, while Western donors — who balked at the open discrimination of women in aid work — privately weighed slicing their humanitarian funding to Afghanistan in half or cutting it altogether.
The United Nations’ appeal for $4.6 billion in humanitarian aid for Afghanistan this year remains less than 5 percent funded, according to Ramiz Alakbarov, the U.N. deputy special representative and humanitarian coordinator for Afghanistan. With just $213 million given to the drive, it is now the lowest funded U.N. aid operation globally, despite being the world’s largest aid operation.
In the months since the ban was announced in December, many aid groups have negotiated exemptions from local officials who offered verbal assurances that women could continue to work. But news that the government’s leader had sent fresh orders to the country’s intelligence wing, the General Directorate of Intelligence, to enforce the decree prompted concerns among the aid community that those exemptions would not hold, according to aid workers.
The extension of the ban to the U.N. could have even more far-reaching consequences than the December edict targeting N.G.O.s, aid officials say.
The Afghan government’s policy directly violates the U.N. charter, officials say, and could move the U.N. leadership to shut down its aid operations in Afghanistan. Even if programs continue, donor countries — many of which are already fatigued by Afghanistan after their 20-year-long failed nation-building effort — may decide to cut their funding. And if aid money dries up, it could plunge millions further into life-threatening hunger and exacerbate the country’s economic crisis.
“Instead of working together to support the most vulnerable, such measures could drive the people of Afghanistan into further despair,” Volker Türk, the U.N.’s human rights chief, said in a statement. “The Taliban leadership must rethink these deplorable policies against women, for the sake of the people of Afghanistan and for the future of the country.”