Afghanistan is heading into a “humanitarian catastrophe,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said earlier this week at a meeting with her European counterparts in Brussels. It is brutal, she said, to witness the Taliban cut off millions of Afghans from aid.
Baerbock’s comments come in response to the Taliban’s decision in December to ban women from working for aid agencies in the country. The new rules apply for Afghan as well as foreign organizations.
Taliban leaders justified their decision by saying some aid workers had ignored the country’s Islamic dress code. Any organization that continues to employ women will lose its license to operate. Baerbock said this ban would make it harder for German aid deliveries to reach the country and called on the Taliban to allow girls and women back to workplaces, schools and universities.
According to a recent UN report, the Taliban have removed over 250 women judges and hundreds of women lawyers and prosecutors from their positions since returning to power in 2021. UN experts warned of a “collapse of the rule of law” in Afghanistan, adding that judicial positions are now being filled mainly by Taliban members with little more than a basic religious education.
Women-led businesses face uncertainty
“I am in constant fear day and night that our company will be shut down,” businesswoman Latifah Akbari told DW. She has a small food business called Hariva, based in Afghanistan’s Herat Province. It sells eggplant paste, marmalade, pickled cucumbers, dried vegetables and more. “Right now, 48 women are employed in the company, earning a living in either full-time or part-time work.”
Fariba is one of them. She works part-time and is glad to have a source of income. She was a hairstylist until the Taliban takeover, then she lost her job. “I was lucky to have found a way to make money, even if it isn’t much,” Fariba told DW. “I help produce marmalade and tomato paste and the income helps support my family.”
Some 300 Afghan women work in a variety of small businesses throughout Herat Province. “After women were barred from Afghan universities, some of these students tried to find work with women-led businesses in Herat,” Behnaz Salghoqi, of Herat‘s Chamber of Industry and Commerce for Women, told DW. Such businesses tend to employ only women, meaning they do not interact with other men.
The Chamber of Industry and Commerce for Women was established in 2014 to assist women entrepreneurs on the national and international level and remains active today. Its goal is to assist women-led businesses and, by helping them, work to make the country‘s economy less dependent on foreign aid. The Taliban takeover, however, has done great damage to their efforts.
Entrepreneurs like Akbari are worried their business could be shut down too. “What would we do if they bar us from working as well?” she asks. Currently, half of the country‘s 38 million people face food insecurity, and 3 million children are threatened by malnutrition.
Harsh winter takes its toll
Matters have been made even worse by Afghanistan’s harsh winter. Temperatures as low as minus 33 degrees Celsius (minus 27 degrees Fahrenheit) were recorded in the central Ghor Province. Regions in the central and northern parts of the country have seen road traffic come to a standstill amid heavy snowfall, as social media posts show.
At least 70 people have died as a result of this extreme cold, Afghanistan’s ministry of disaster management said last week. Some 70,000 cattle — an important food and income source — also died. “This winter is by far the coldest in recent years,” the head of Afghanistan’s meteorology office, Mohammed Nasim Muradi, told AFP.
The relief agency Caritas and others want to help those suffering. “It is our job to assist people in need,” Caritas head Oliver Müller told German church-affiliated news outlets. “But we cannot continue to work under these conditions in Afghanistan.” Many aid agencies have either fully or partially suspended their work in the country since the ban on female workers came into force.
This ban makes it impossible for aid agencies to directly help Afghan women, as they are not allowed to speak to men outside their families. “This ban hits the nerve of humanitarian aid,” Müller further told the news outlets. For now, his organization is limited to handing out food donations to the local councils headed by men. Müller said this was “unacceptable, as we cannot guarantee this aid goes where it is intended.” He called on politicians to increase their pressure on the Taliban to change course.
Shoaib Tanha contributed to this report.
This article was translated from German.