Canada’s international development minister is calling on the Taliban to reverse its decision to bar women from working at non-governmental organizations in Afghanistan.
Harjit Sajjan’s comments come as several major international aid groups announce plans to suspend operations in the country taken over by the Taliban, a listed terrorist entity, in August 2021.
Millions have been thrown into poverty since then and and are now facing hunger, with the United Nations estimating as many as six million Afghans are currently at risk of famine. The International Committee of the Red Cross has also reported an increase in malnutrition and pneumonia among children, with concerns only mounting given the onset of winter.
In light of the Taliban’s decision, Save the Children, CARE International and the Norwegian Refugee Council issued a joint statement saying they cannot provide the assistance needed without their female staff and were suspending programs.
“Our government is deeply concerned about the recent decision by the Taliban to ban (non-governmental organizations) women employees from doing their important work in Afghanistan,” Sajjan said in a statement Sunday.
“They are contributing to the critical work of meeting the urgent humanitarian needs of the Afghan people. We urge the Taliban to reverse this decision because it will only lead to greater suffering of the Afghan people.’’
Sajjan is assessing what impact the move will have and plans to reach out to international partners and international groups in the region, his office added.
Canadian humanitarian groups have already said they have been unable to deliver aid because the Canadian government has yet to find a workaround to its anti-terrorism laws, which officials warned groups they could be violating if they pay people in Afghanistan for services such as providing transportation or purchasing goods.
Citing Canada’s sanctions, a spokesperson at the Canadian Red Cross — which is part of a coalition of aid groups pushing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government to find accommodations for them to work in the region— said it is not affected by the Taliban’s decision.
Sajjan has said his government plans to amend the Criminal Code to provide a workaround for aid groups, but said no changes could be introduced until at least spring 2023.
The Taliban’s banning of women at non-governmental organizations has sparked outcry among international aid organizations such as Unicef, whose executive director called the move a “blatant violation” of both international humanitarian law and women’s rights.
“These decisions will have far-reaching consequences for the delivery of essential services for children and families across the country – especially in the areas of health, nutrition, education and child protection – areas where female humanitarian workers have an immeasurably important role to play,” Catherine Russell said in a statement.
The International Committee of the Red Cross says it employs hundreds of women in Afghanistan and is particularly concerned about what the Taliban’s decision means for those in its health-care system.
The Canadian government has long expressed concerns about the treatment of women and girls in Afghanistan, including last week when Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly joined her counterparts in ally countries to condemn the Taliban’s barring of women from universities and girls from secondary schools. They issued a statement at the time saying such policies “will have consequences for how our countries engage with the Taliban.”
Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press