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The United Nations in Afghanistan

The United Nations in Afghanistan


Why the UN is under fire from some of its own staff in Afghanistan for its treatment of women staff.

Last December, the Taliban ordered women in Afghanistan to stop working for NGOs as part of their brutal campaign to restrict the rights of women and girls. 

At first, United Nations staff in Afghanistan were exempt from the new restrictions. But in April the ban was extended to include women working for international aid agencies. 

Top UN agencies – including Unicef, the World Food Programme and the WHO – have now bowed to Taliban pressure for male-only offices, which Afghan women say makes them complicit in the country’s extreme gender-based restrictions. 

At the same time, staff members have told Tortoise, the UN in Afghanistan has been infiltrated by Taliban informants and is failing to protect local female staff from harassment and intimidation. 

Since reporting, UN staff have been reprimanded for damaging the international body’s image with major donor countries. 

One Afghan female staff member working on the ground was specifically told that she should not be publicly commenting on the situation or taking part in meetings about it.

Shaharzad Akbar, former chairperson of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission commented on Twitter that the voices of Afghan women “only count” when aligned with the UN and international communities’ “security, financial & political interests”.

“This is not an easy situation but can the UN really not do better than contradictory messaging, compliance with apartheid & putting Afghan women at risk?” she said. 

A local female UN employee told Tortoise that she felt the international body had “not only betrayed its own women staff but also the whole Afghan women with this decision” 

“The UN was the only hope for Afghan women to stand up for our rights. But it didn’t even support its own staff.”

Afghans left behind after the fall of Kabul are enduring a devastating humanitarian crisis. 

There are 40 million people in Afghanistan. Two-thirds of them need urgent humanitarian assistance to survive. 

There is no doubt the UN is facing an incredibly complicated and difficult challenge in Afghanistan.

At the same time, the UN sets standards for working conditions for international NGOs. 

“I’m really concerned about the messages that the new policy sends. First of all, I think it will greatly undermine the UNs ability to actually do humanitarian work in accordance with humanitarian principles, including nondiscrimination and the distribution of aid because it’s going to be virtually impossible to work directly with female beneficiaries if you don’t have female staff in the situation in Afghanistan”, said former UN Special Rapporteur Professor Karima Bennoune. 

“And this really sends a message I think to women, human rights defenders throughout the region and potentially even to women around the world that their fundamental rights just don’t matter quite as much. That they can be negotiable.” 

The World Food Programme in Afghanistan told us that: “Afghan women continue to be employed and no women will be replaced by men.” 

Neither Unicef nor the World Health Organisation responded to requests for comment.  

There are potential solutions, according to aid workers and campaigners. 

The UN and NGOs could present a more united front to the Taliban, the UN could also threaten to suspend humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan. Or, the nuclear option, pull out altogether. 

But right now, one of the UN’s biggest operations continues to operate in violation of its own core principles.