Afghan women are leaders, students, aid workers. Their participation isn’t negotiable

Melissa Fleming
3 min readJan 6, 2023
A female Afghan volunteer engaged in a UNHCR-supported education project in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Credit: UNHCR/Oxygen Film Studio (AFG)

Women play a vital role in all societies. Afghanistan is no different. 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. The result will only be more suffering for Afghan people.

The decree came as a shock to many. In the last days of December, the Taliban forbade female staff from working for national and international NGOs. The ban has in effect suspended scores of vital humanitarian operations in a country desperate for aid. The true cost is still being counted.

This is just the latest violation of the fundamental rights of women and girls in Afghanistan. They have been banned from many workplaces, and from attending university and secondary school. They have even been banished from public parks and prevented from making public appearances.

The sharp erosion of freedoms is as disturbing as it is shocking, as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has stressed. What’s more, this latest move to exclude female aid workers seriously undermines the work of all aid organizations, bringing yet more misery to the people of Afghanistan.

The needs are colossal. Twenty-eight million Afghans, among them 11.6 million women and girls, look to the UN and partner NGOs for food, water, shelter, and healthcare. Vulnerable communities, especially women and children, are already suffering from the absence of female humanitarian staff.

The UN is committed to staying and delivering for Afghans as they face mass hunger, a freezing winter and dire economic hardship. Yet women are key to all aspects of that effort, with many also in important leadership roles, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee on Afghanistan has said.

Female staff are indispensable in many situations, helping other women in ways male colleagues simply can’t. Whether it's in terms of sexual and reproductive health, support for survivors of abuse, or help for the 24,000 women who give birth in remote areas of Afghanistan every single month.

Life-saving aid continues where possible. Yet the ban on female staff makes that work all the more difficult. Long term, there are fears some services must be paused in places until they return. In this and countless other ways, the ban poses an immediate risk to Afghan lives.

Moreover, the ban on female humanitarian staff denies thousands of women the possibility of providing for their families, leaving countless women-led households — which make up a quarter of all Afghan households — without any income. Many children will go even hungrier as a result.

The world is watching closely. I join my colleagues in expressing my full solidarity with the women and girls of Afghanistan. With our partners, the UN will make every effort to ensure that they reclaim their space in Afghan society, with their rights restored, protected, and upheld.

Sense must prevail. The dangerous campaign to delete women from public life must end. No country can afford to exclude half of its population from society. Women and girls are crucial to the future of Afghanistan. There can be no sustainable development, no stability, without them.

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Melissa Fleming

Chief Communicator #UnitedNations promoting a peaceful, sustainable, just & humane world. Author: A Hope More Powerful than the Sea. Podcast: Awake at Night.