Cover image: Richard Pohle/The Times

In 2023, the people of Afghanistan continue to face the country's biggest economic and food crisis on record as the Taliban continue to erode women's freedoms and the ability of NGOs to effectively deliver aid.

What are the key challenges facing Afghanistan in 2023?

Since the Taliban regained power in August 2021, a dire humanitarian emergency has gripped Afghanistan. Men, women and children across the country have endured the unfolding of catastrophic, simultaneous crises. This has included:

  • Economic sanctions levelled at the de facto authorities, which has resulted in the collapse of the central banking system;
  • Rising unemployment;
  • Considerably higher food and fuel prices, in part as a result of the conflict in Ukraine;
  • Restrictions on women's involvement in public and political spheres;
  • Ongoing drought conditions;
  • Other more frequent natural disasters and extreme weather caused by the changing climate.

These extreme conditions have meant that, in the past 18 months, an astonishing 90% of the population have struggled to put food on the table, skipping meals or going whole days without food and resorting to extreme coping mechanisms. It is now estimated that a record 28.3 million people in the country will require humanitarian assistance in 2023, and Afghan women and girls are facing the brunt of the crisis, with 96% of female-headed households currently unable to eat enough on a daily basis.

An emergency of this scale is not quickly resolved, but thanks to an incredible outpouring of support, Afghanaid has supported 1.8 million people with emergency assistance since the Taliban takeover, targeting some of the most marginalised in the country. But now, deepening rollbacks on women’s full participation in public and political life means the current humanitarian emergency will undoubtedly endure with even more dire consequences, with women and girls increasingly facing the toughest conditions.

What is happening to women and NGOs in Afghanistan?

At the end of 2022, the Taliban authorities announced a series of edicts restricting women's freedoms.

Afghan women were banned from attending universities, 16 months on from an initial ban on secondary school aged girls attending school. Then, following this announcement, on 24th December the authorities issued another edict banning women from working for national and international NGOs in Afghanistan. In April 2023, the United Nation's (UN) - previously excluded from this initial edict - received an order from the Taliban authorities also banning female national staff members of the UN from working. 

These decrees infringe upon the most basic rights of women. Afghanaid maintains that these decisions by the de facto authorities must be immediately and fully revoked.

Afghan women and girls deserve to be able to access safe spaces to learn, to be able to dream of bright, successful careers and to have control over their futures.

Charles Davy, Afghanaid's Managing Director.

What will be the impact if these decrees are maintained?

The deepening erosion on women's freedoms will have a negative impact on the whole of Afghan society. 

Education is instrumental in unlocking women’s full potential, enabling their economic inclusion and meaningful, positive participation in their communities. With girls and women unable to attend school or seek a university education, there is a real risk of creating a ‘lost generation’, with a dearth of women teachers, civil servants or doctors to deliver vital basic services that are already at breaking point, impoverishing vulnerable communities even further.

We know that female-headed households are disproportionately impacted by crises, and in Afghanistan they make up almost a quarter of all families. By disrupting the ability of NGOs to most effectively deliver aid to women and girls, millions of these families - already in crisis - may face even greater difficulty in accessing their most basic needs, and many more women may be unable to learn new skills and contribute to household income. This will put untold pressure on male family members acting as the sole providers for their family during Afghanistan's biggest economic and food crisis on record. 

These enduring decrees also heighten the risk that donor countries will reduce funding for humanitarian and development aid. In January, the UN made its single-largest country aid appeal ever, asking for $4.6 billion in 2023 to deliver assistance in Afghanistan. By May 2023, it was just 5% funded.

Women at an Afghanaid food distribution centre in December 2022, Richard Pohle/The Times

What efforts are being made to negotiate with the authorities?

In response to the ban, Afghanaid, along with other NGOs, suspended operations to effectively align our response with the UN and other key stakeholders and engage in negotiations with the authorities to advocate for a reversal of the decree. Since the beginning of the year, several delegations, including one led by the UN Deputy Secretary General Amina Mohammed, have undertaken visits to Afghanistan to engage with the authorities. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has also been holding ongoing negotiations at both the national and sub-national level with support from NGOs and key donor countries. 

Some minor concessions have been carved out at the national level: women can still work in health and education services. These concessions unfortunately fall well short of what is required. The emerging view is that the Taliban leadership is unlikely to agree to a reversal of this ban and it is therefore more practical to seek a relaxation of its contents via the issuance of guidelines, further sectoral concessions and local arrangements under which women could work.

It is thanks to our long-standing alliances with the remote, rural communities we serve that we have found local solutions which, through effective collaboration with local women and men, enable us to continue to directly reach women with our assistance, whilst protecting our invaluable female colleagues. Our teams continue to strengthen these localised arrangements to safeguard the meaningful inclusion of women in all areas of our work.

Read The full update on our operations in Afghanistan

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