UNITED NATIONS (AP) - The U.N. humanitarian chief warned Monday that the Taliban's ban on women aid workers in Afghanistan is "a potential death blow" to many important humanitarian programs.
If the Taliban don't make exceptions to their edict "this would be catastrophic," Martin Griffiths said at a news conference.
He said a delegation including international aid groups made the case that Afghan women are critical to humanitarian operations during meetings last week with nine Taliban officials, including Afghanistan's foreign affairs and economy ministers.
"We were asked to be patient," Griffiths said. "We were told that guidelines are being developed by the Taliban authorities which would provide, allegedly, the functioning of women in humanitarian operations."
He said the Taliban's consistent message "that there will be a place for women working" was "a slightly patronizing message, but it's an important one."
Griffiths noted that after the Dec. 24 edict by the Taliban barring aid groups from employing Afghan women, the health minister granted an exception for women in the health field and the education minister granted an exception for those involved in primary education.
He said the humanitarian delegation told the Taliban that if they weren't going to rescind the edict "then we must expand these exceptions to cover all the aspects of humanitarian action."
Griffiths, who is the U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, wouldn't speculate on what will happen.
"Let's see if these guidelines do come through. Let's see if they are beneficial. Let's see what space there is for the essential and central role of women in our humanitarian operations," he said.
Despite initial promises, the Taliban have imposed increasing restrictions on girls and women since they took power in August 2021 during the final weeks of the U.S. and NATO forces' pullout after 20 years. Their takeover drove millions into poverty and hunger after foreign aid stopped almost overnight.
Omar Abdi, deputy executive director for programming for the U.N. children's agency UNICEF who was part of the delegation, said 6 million Afghans face emergency levels of food insecurity and are one step away from famine. He said 875,000 children are expected to suffer severe acute malnutrition this year, which is why "it's critical to continue these operations."
Abdi cited some positive signs. He said that despite the Taliban ban on girls attending secondary school, an estimated 200,000 girls continue to receive secondary education in around 12 provinces. He added that female secondary school teachers continue to receive their salaries from the Taliban authorities.
He said Taliban officials reaffirmed to the delegation "that they are not against girls learning in secondary schools, and again promised to reopen once the guidelines are approved by their leader."
"In addition, over the last year the number of community-based education classes taking place in private homes, public places has doubled, from 10,000 to 20,000 classes," he said. "These serve about 600,000 children, of whom 55% are girls."
Abdi said these positive signs are the result of both the commitment from Taliban authorities and pressure from local communities to keep schools and community schools open.
"Without education," he said, "certainly there is no hope for a better future for girls and women of Afghanistan."
Sofia Sprechmann Sineiro, CARE International's secretary-general, saidthat "tying the hands of NGOs by barring women from giving life-saving support to other women will cost lives."
Janti Soeripto, president of Save the Children US, said women account for 30% of the 55,000 Afghan nationals working for NGOs and many of them are the sole breadwinners for their families.
Without them, she said, aid can't be delivered to millions of women and children, and "if the ban isn't reversed, the consequences for the people of Afghanistan will be dire."
So far, Griffiths said, women working for the U.N. and its agencies haven't been banned and continue to work, but he insisted that Afghan women must also be allowed to contribute to the country's economy.
"Afghanistan is going through a savage winter, the second under the Taliban," he said. "Last winter, we managed to survive. I don't know if we can do this indefinitely, not with all these bans."
He said 28 million Afghans need help and the $4.6 billion needed for humanitarian aid for the country this year is the largest amount in the world.
"Every day that goes by without proper, functioning humanitarian aid is not a good day for the people of Afghanistan," Griffiths said.