UN ready to take ‘heartbreaking’ decision to pull out of Afghanistan

“In no other country have women and girls so rapidly disappeared from all spheres of public life." - AP/AP

“In no other country have women and girls so rapidly disappeared from all spheres of public life.” – AP/AP

The United Nations is ready to take the “heartbreaking” decision to pull out of Afghanistan next month unless the Taliban reverse an edict banning local women from working for the organisation.

UN officials are asking the Taliban regime to make exemptions to the order made earlier this month, which is the latest in growing restrictions imposed since the former insurgents took power.

“It is fair to say that where we are right now is the entire United Nations system having to take a step back and re-evaluating its ability to operate there,” the head of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) told Associated Press.

Achim Steiner said: “But it’s not about negotiating fundamental principles, human rights.”

The United Nations agencies have played a central role in feeding Afghans and trying to keep basic services running in the past 18 months, as the country dives further into poverty.

Pull-out described as ‘devastating’

Michael Kugelman, South Asia Institute Director of the Wilson Center, described the potential pull-out as “devastating”.

“Afghanistan is facing its highest risk of famine in 25 yrs, and the UN is one of the only major international groups on the ground providing relief,” he said.

The Taliban have increasingly removed women and girls from public life since they overthrew the internationally-backed government in August 2021.

Girls are not allowed in secondary school. Women have been removed from government departments and banned from work in most sectors. They have been ordered to cover their faces in public and told they cannot travel long distances without a chaperone.

In the latest decree, the Taliban said that female Afghan staff employed with the UN mission can no longer report for work.

“This is a very fundamental moment that we’re approaching,” Mr Steiner said. “And obviously our hope and expectation is that there will be some common sense prevailing.”

Without female staff the UN would struggle to interact with Afghan women, many of whom will not discuss sensitive issues with men or meet with them in private.

Severe humanitarian crisis

Afghanistan was one of the world’s most severe humanitarian crises before the Taliban took power and its situation has worsened as international funding has been cut and the economy has collapsed.

But the UN has decided that despite the need, human rights are non-negotiable and the organisation will leave in May if the Taliban do not relent.

“I think there is no other way of putting it than heartbreaking,” Mr Steiner said. “I mean, if I were to imagine the UN family not being in Afghanistan today, I have before me these images of millions of young girls, young boys, fathers, mothers, who essentially will not have enough to eat.”

During negotiations to secure the American troop withdrawal that precipitated the Taliban victory, the insurgents assured Washington they did not wish to return to their repressive 1990s policies.

Women increasingly marginalised

Yet since they took power they have instead increasingly marginalised women.

“In no other country have women and girls so rapidly disappeared from all spheres of public life, nor are they as disadvantaged in every aspect of their lives,” Richard Bennet, the special rapporteur for human rights in Afghanistan concluded last year.

The hard line position is apparently being dictated by the Taliban’s supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada and his inner circle in the city of Kandahar.

There have been signs of dissent among other senior Taliban figures, including some criticism of both the direction of the regime and the way the leadership is monopolising power.

Some 3,300 Afghans are employed by the UN, 2,700 men and 600 women, and have remained at home since April 12 but continue to work and will be paid, the organisation said. The UN’s 600 international staff, including 200 women, are not affected by the ban.

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