Key aid group says Taliban signals exemption for women in southern heartland

An Afghan woman and a girl walk in a street in Kabul

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) -An international aid agency in Afghanistan hopes to have an interim arrangement within days to allow its Afghan female staff to return to work in the southern province of Kandahar - the birthplace of the Taliban and home to the supreme spiritual leader.

Norwegian Refugee Council Secretary General Jan Egeland spokes to Reuters after traveling to Kabul on Wednesday from Kandahar, where he met with key Taliban leaders.

"If we can get a local interim arrangement - that we were promised in Kandahar - that is something we can use in the rest of the country," said Egeland, who was the U.N. aid chief from 2003-06.

The Taliban seized power in August 2021 as U.S.-led forces withdrew after 20 years of war. Last month, Taliban authorities began enforcing a ban on Afghan women working for the U.N. after stopping women working for aid groups in December. U.N. and aid officials said the orders came from Taliban leaders in Kandahar.

CRACKDOWN

The U.N. and aid groups have been trying to carve out exemptions for women to deliver aid, particularly in health and education. The Taliban administration has been promising since January a set of written guidelines to allow aid groups to operate with female staff.

"Whenever new instructions are issued by the authorities, we will inform you," Abdulrahman Habib, spokesman for the economic ministry which announced the ban on female workers last year, said on Wednesday.

Egeland said that when he complained that the guidelines were taking too long, the officials in Kandahar suggested an interim arrangement could be agreed within days to allow Afghan women to return to work in the office and field.

"When this happens in the province of the supreme ruler that should be a basis for also having interim arrangements elsewhere," said Egeland. "I hope we can now be a door opener for other organizations as well. That's what we're seeking."

Taliban officials have said decisions on female aid workers are an "internal issue."

The Taliban say they respect women's rights in accordance with their strict interpretation of Islamic law. They have also tightened controls on women's access to public life, barring women and girls from university and high school.

The Afghan people are in for a "very difficult year ahead," the top U.S. aid official has warned, as donors grapple with challenging the Taliban's crackdown on women and girls, more crises around the world, and less funding overall.

"We're collateral damage here in this continuous Cold War between the de facto rulers of Afghanistan and those who left the country and left behind 40 million civilians," said Egeland, noting NRC had 40% less funding this year compared with 2022.

The United Nations says nearly three-quarters of Afghanistan's 40 million people need humanitarian help and it has also warned that funding is drying up. A $4.6 billion U.N. appeal for 2023 is currently less than 8% funded.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols, additional reporting by Muhammad Yunus Yawar in KabulEditing by Alistair Bell and Nick Macfie)