United Nations staff in Afghanistan have been ordered to stay at home for 48 hours to give UN officials time to persuade the Taliban not to go ahead with their plan to ban all female Afghan employees of the UN from working.
The UN said the ban would lead to even less humanitarian aid reaching Afghanistan.
The warning was issued by the UN secretary general, António Guterres, after UN female staffers were prevented from reporting to work in Nangarhar province on Tuesday. The Taliban subsequently told UN officials orally but not in writing that the ban was going ahead nationwide.
The UN informed all its Afghan employees, men and women, not to report to their workplaces for 48 hours until this issue was clarified in its meetings with the Taliban.
“We remind de facto authorities that United Nations entities cannot operate and deliver life-saving assistance without female staff,” the UN said.
The Taliban have already banned women from working for aid agencies, and NGOs in the country on Tuesday said they feared the Nangarhar province ban was a precursor to a nationwide ban.
Until now Afghan women working for the UN have been excluded from the ban. Many NGOs have tried to negotiate local opt-outs of the ban on women working especially in the health sector where female staff are needed to access Afghan women. Efforts by high-ranking UN officials and diplomats close to the Taliban to get the ban lifted formally have failed.
Zalmay Khalilzad, a former US representative to the talks on the future of Afghanistan prior to the Taliban takeover, said such a step would be a breach of the undertakings the Taliban gave to all sides both in public and private in the talks staged in Doha.
Despite initial promises of a more moderate rule than during its previous stint in power, the Taliban have imposed harsh measures since seizing control in 2021 as US and Nato forces were pulling out of Afghanistan after two decades of war.
Girls are banned from education beyond sixth grade and women are barred from working, studying, travelling without a male companion, and even going to parks. Women must also cover themselves from head to toe.
He also said UN officials were told through “various conduits” including in Jalalabad that the ban applied to the whole country. The UN, he said, had been warned the step was imminent and, asked about contingency plans, said: “The contingency plan is almost too tragic to even contemplate. We are going to continue to engage with the de facto authorities on this.”
He said: “We’re still looking into how this development would affect our operations in the country, and we are expected to have more meetings with the de facto authorities tomorrow in Kabul in which we’re trying to seek some clarity.”
Dujarric said female staff members were essential to executing life-saving UN operations on the ground, saying that out of a population of about 40 million people, the organisation was “trying to reach 23 million men, women and children with humanitarian aid”. The UN has 4,000 staff in Afghanistan of which 3,500 are Afghans. The UN did not immediately have a gender breakdown available.
The Taliban are not recognised by the UN so the leverage it has is largely confined to freezing aid, something the organisation would be very reluctant to do. Since December 2021 the UN has been the conduit for approximately $1.8bn (£1.4bn) in cash being brought into the country in monthly shipments. The funds required due to the banking collapse in Afghanistan are for the UN and partners to conduct their work, but also act as an injection of liquidity that staves off an inflationary spiral.
A report by the Norwegian Refugee Council this week had urged humanitarian donors to be more flexible in providing funds to the country, and to be less concerned by the threat of sanctions.
Taliban restrictions in Afghanistan, especially the bans on education and NGO work, have drawn fierce international condemnation. But the they have shown no signs of backing down, claiming the bans are temporary suspensions in place allegedly because women were not wearing the Islamic headscarf, or hijab, correctly and because gender segregation rules were not being followed.