KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The head of a major aid organization said Thursday that the Taliban have agreed to consider allowing Afghan women to resume work at the agency in the southern province of Kandahar, the religious and political center for the country’s rulers.
The Taliban last December barred Afghan women from working at nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, allegedly because they were not wearing the hijab – the Islamic headscarf – correctly or observing gender segregation rules. In April, they said the ban extended to U.N. offices and agencies in Afghanistan. There are exemptions in some sectors, like health care and education.
Jan Egeland, the secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, met officials in the capital Kabul and Kandahar to persuade them to reverse the ban on the organization’s female staff.
“We have an agreement to start immediate talks on a temporary arrangement that will enable our female colleagues to work with and for women and others in Kandahar,” Egeland told The Associated Press. “If we get a provincial exemption in Kandahar, we should be able to replicate it elsewhere.”
In January, the Taliban said they were working on guidelines for women to return to work at NGOs. Egeland said earlier this week that key officials told him they are close to finalizing these guidelines. But they were unable to give a timeline or details when pressed.
The temporary arrangement would be in place while the nationwide guidelines are developed. The interim arrangement would cover all sectors and all programming by the Norwegian Refugee Council, he said.
Aid agencies have been providing food, education and health care support to Afghans in the wake of the Taliban takeover in August 2021 and the economic collapse that followed it. But distribution has been severely impacted by December’s edict.
Egeland said he made it clear to the Taliban that the agency needs to be able to deliver aid as it did before the ban, and with women.
Years of humanitarian diplomacy in Afghanistan have paved the way for the positive feedback from Kandahar, with the Norwegian Refugee Council negotiating with the Taliban to provide education and relief in areas under their control during the war, he said.
“They knew we never broke any rules in terms of Afghan culture, we go way back, but we have to be firm,” Egeland told the AP.
He insisted the organization will not employ male-only teams or deliver male-only aid work.
Egeland said there is agreement within the Ministry of Economy, which oversees NGOs in Afghanistan, that a regional deal could open a pathway to a national one.
“I have a strong sense they understand that if aid operations are cut for a longer period, they may not come back. They realize time is running out.”
The Taliban have repeatedly told senior humanitarian officials visiting Afghanistan since December that the NGO restrictions are temporary suspensions, not a ban.
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