Since capturing the Afghan capital Kabul in August 2021, the Taliban has increasingly restricted the rights of women and girls.

In December 2022, these restrictions were tightened with a ban on women working in non-governmental organisations (NGOs). In April 2023, this was extended to local UN workers.

Bans on female aid workers

In December 2022, the Taliban issued a decree banning women from working in national and international NGOs in Afghanistan. Media reports state the Taliban banned women from working for not adhering to the country’s Islamic dress code.

In April 2023, Afghan women were also banned from working with UN agencies. In response, the UN ordered its 3,300 male and female Afghan workers to remain at home.

The UN Security Council has unanimously adopted a resolution calling for the ban to be rescinded and for the UN to remain in Afghanistan. The UK Foreign Office condemned the banas putting at risk “millions of Afghans who depend on humanitarian assistance for their survival”.

The Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has also called for the ban to be reversed. The OIC represents 56 member states, each of whom has a significant Muslim population.

How many women and NGOs are affected?

Since taking power, the Taliban has increasingly excluded women from the workforce. However, NGOs continued operating, and before the ban 40% of NGO staff in Afghanistan were women.

For 70% of these women, this was also their family’s main income source.

According to UN Women, 94% of surveyed NGOs fully or partially ceased their operations after the December ban.

Aid agencies report that the ban has hindered the delivery of aid, made it harder to assess the needs of women and girls, and increased safeguarding risks.

However, the ban is not universally enforced and increasing numbers of NGOs have resumed work.

Separate data from the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) states the proportion of organisations fully suspending work fell from 38% to 12% between January and February. Local organisations led by Afghan women continue to be most affected, as the Taliban refuses to negotiate with them.

How much does Afghanistan depend on aid?

In 2022, the UN Development Programme estimated that 85% of Afghans were living in poverty, up from half in 2020.

The UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs also projects that 28 million Afghans, which is two thirds of the population, will need humanitarian assistance in 2023. Nearly 80% of those in need are women and children.

The prospects for improvements in conditions are limited, and there are warnings that international support for Afghanistan will fall because of donor fatigue and humanitarian need in Ukraine, east Africa and Syria.

Can aid still be effectively delivered?

All UK aid is directed through the UN or international NGOs.

The UK, UN and others are pushing for the Taliban to reverse the ban and find a means for NGOs to continue their work. This includes direct engagement with the Taliban, though the UK Government does not expect them to change the decree.

Another issue is that monitoring aid spending in Afghanistan is difficult. While the UK Government is monitoring how its aid funding is spent, in April 2023 the US Inspector General for Afghanistan told Congress that he could not assure them that the Taliban is not diverting foreign aid.

Could aid be made conditional on rights for women and girls?

In January 2023, International Development Minister Andrew Mitchell opposed making UK aid conditional, arguing the Taliban was unlikely to be affected and conditionality would harm those the UK is seeking to help.

Human Rights Watch has argued that any conditions on funding should be sensitive to the fact that some provinces and sectors (such as primary education) do not restrict women and girls to the same degree, and nation-wide funding conditions should not penalise them.

UK aid to Afghanistan is expected to fall

The UK committed to providing £286 million a year in aid to Afghanistan for 2021/22 and 2022/23. This made it the UK’s largest bilateral aid programme.

However, FCDO data seen by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI), which is responsible for scrutinising UK aid spending, found funding fell to £246 million in 2022/23. Work affected included polio vaccinations and landmine clearance.

In response to questions on whether the UK will use the ban as a reason to reduce its aid, the Minister for South Asia and the Middle East, Lord Ahmad, said the Government must be “realistic” about what funding can be effectively distributed.

In its allocations for 2023/24, the FCDO plans to spend £142 million across Pakistan and Afghanistan (53% lower than 2022/23).

In its May 2023 report on UK aid to Afghanistan, the ICAI said it understands UK aid to Afghanistan will be £100 million in 2023/24. It cites increased spending on hosting refugees in the UK as one cause of the reduction.

In June 2023, the House of Commons is expected to hold a debate on the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan. The Commons International Development Committee has held two evidence sessions into the situation for women and girls in Afghanistan.

Further reading

About the author: Philip Loft is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in international development

Photo by: Mohammad Husaini on Unsplash

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