Comply or boycott, the choices facing aid agencies in Afghanistan

As Afghanistan continues to grapple with the Taliban’s ban on women’s work, the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) has published a report discussing the ban on women’s work and examining the past and present challenges surrounding the delivery of aid in the country.

According to the report, the Taliban’s ban on women’s work has a long-standing history in Afghanistan. In the 1990s, women were explicitly prohibited from doing any work outside the home, except for a few limited circumstances. In the present, the situation is slightly different, with women banned from working in NGOs, UN agencies, secondary schools, universities, and most government jobs, but not in the private sector, primary schools, or embassies. The Taliban’s rationale for these restrictions remains unchanged – to protect the population from sin based on their understanding of sharia law.

The AAN report highlights how the current Taliban movement is more experienced and diplomatic than before, with a polished cohort that has gained experience through years of negotiations in Doha. Furthermore, the group do not face sizeable armed opposition and can focus on ensuring a monopoly of power. 

The aid industry is now much larger, with the UN alone sending $40 million per week to the country, and there is far greater outside interest and scrutiny of what NGOs do. But with no real leverage or diplomatic pressure, donors and the UN have found it challenging to find unity among themselves.

In the report, eight individuals were interviewed, most of whom worked during both eras of Taliban rule. The interviews indicate that the environment is now more hostile for foreigners and the Taliban would be very happy to get rid of NGOs and UN agencies, as they are seen as spies, dealing with foreign concepts. The interviewees did not suggest making aid conditional, but rather suggested that disunity among the Taliban might provide an opportunity to lift the bans on women’s work. 

According to the report, the current argument of the Taliban on women bans are the same as 1990s, when a Minister asked how widows with no grown men in the family were expected to feed themselves, he replied “God will provide.” This familiarity of the discourse from both Taliban and aid actors masks the very many real differences between then and now. 

Humanitarian organizations now face the difficult choices of either complying with the Taliban’s restrictions, boycotting or compromising on their principles to deliver aid. The report emphasizes that the ban on women’s work is not a new issue, and aid workers have long struggled to reconcile the Taliban’s position that women should stay at home with the need for female workers to deliver effective aid equitably.