Officials from the U.N. and an aid organization were meeting with the Taliban in Afghanistan amid intensified calls for the Islamist rulers to end what a U.N. official describes as a “dangerous campaign” to exclude women from public life.
The meetings come as Melissa Fleming, the U.N. chief communicator, said in recent comments that “the systematic campaign by the country’s de facto authorities to gradually erase women from public life and deny their contribution is an extraordinary act of self-harm.”
Fleming’s remarks came as Markus Potzel, the U.N. envoy to Afghanistan, held back-to-back meetings with senior Taliban ministers in the capital, Kabul, urging them to lift bans on women’s education and work for aid groups, citing the country’s dire humanitarian conditions.
Potzel held his latest meeting Sunday with the Taliban minister for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice, tasked with interpreting and enforcing the Taliban’s version of Islam.
The “latest discriminatory bans against women by Taliban prevent life-saving help reaching Afghans and will hit [the] Afghanistan economy,” Potzel’s office quoted him as telling Muhammad Khalid Hanafi.
Last month, the hardline rulers abruptly forbade Afghan female staff from working for national and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), saying they were not wearing the Islamic headscarf in line with official orders.
U.N. officials say the move has effectively suspended scores of humanitarian programs in a country where millions of people need urgent aid.
Potzel’s discussions with Taliban officials in Kabul come as the U.N. Security Council prepares to meet privately January 13 to debate the ban on Afghan humanitarian aid workers in the improvised country.
Meanwhile, the secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) arrived in the Afghan capital Sunday for talks with Taliban authorities to seek a reversal of the ban on female NGO workers.
Jan Egeland is the first chief of a major charity organization to visit the country since the directive went into effect December 24.
“Our offices are nearly empty, and all operations are paralyzed across Afghanistan,” Egeland wrote on Twitter. Without both female and male staff, we can’t resume our vital relief. We can’t reach women and children without female staff,” he added.
The Norwegian aid chief stressed that his organization respects “all traditional Afghan values for dress, travel and workplace.” He said that NRC’s 469 female colleagues “are essential for” its aid to 700,000 Afghans, females in particular in the wake of cultural sensitivities.
“We must be allowed to resume work with all staff, or lives will be lost,” Egeland warned.
The NRC has assisted about 850,000 people over the last year in Afghanistan in the fields of water, sanitation, shelter and education.
The Taliban have imposed sweeping curbs on women’s lives since returning to power in August 2021, barring them from many workplaces and from attending university and secondary school. Women are not allowed to visit public parks, gyms and bath facilities, and they must cover their faces while in public.
The U.N.’s Fleming also said, “No country can afford to exclude half of its population from society. Women and girls are crucial to the future of Afghanistan.”
The Taliban have rejected criticism of their governance and policies, saying the moves are strictly in line with Afghan culture and Islamic law, or Shariah.