KABUL -- The United Nations (UN) on Wednesday (April 5) said it is seeking "clarity" on an extended ban that blocks women from working for the world body across the country.
The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said it had received notice on Tuesday that the ban on women working for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) would apply to the world body.
Although women have been banned from working in Afghanistan since August 2021, UN staff had so far been exempt.
They had also been exempt from a December order for all foreign and domestic NGOs to stop women from working across Afghanistan.
"UNAMA received word of an order by the de facto authorities that bans female national staff members of the United Nations from working," Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for UN Secretary-General António Guterres, told reporters.
The UN had heard "from various conduits that this applies to the whole country", he added.
No written order had yet been received, Dujarric said, but the UN planned to hold meetings with authorities in Kabul to "seek some clarity."
For Guterres, Dujarric said, "any such ban would be unacceptable and frankly, inconceivable".
"This is the latest in a disturbing trend undermining the ability of aid organisations to reach those most in need," he said.
"Female staff members are essential for the United Nations to deliver lifesaving assistance," he said, noting that the UN is working to reach 23 million people in need of humanitarian aid in the country.
Need for women to deliver aid
A foreign aid worker said the ban on UN women will have a huge impact.
"Women employees identify women beneficiaries, that's how it works across agencies, and that work will be further affected with the extension of this ban to UN women staff," he told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The UN employs about 400 Afghan women -- the bulk of the some 600 female staff members working in Afghanistan -- according to UN figures. There are about 3,300 Afghans in total in the 3,900-strong UN workforce in the country.
"It's very difficult to imagine how we deliver humanitarian aid without our female staff," Dujarric said. "Obviously, given the society and the culture, you need women to deliver aid to women."
After the ban was announced last year, several NGOs suspended their entire operations in protest, piling further misery on Afghanistan's 38 million citizens, half of whom are facing hunger and rely on aid organisations.
Days of discussions had led to an agreement that women working in the health aid sector would be exempt from the decree, and UN staff, including those in the aid sector, were never beholden to the ban.
In January, at least three leading international aid agencies partially resumed life-saving work in Afghanistan, after assurances from local authorities that Afghan women could continue to work in the health sector.
CARE, Save the Children and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) had suspended their operations in late December in protest at a government order banning Afghan women from aid work.
Last month, UNAMA chief Roza Otunbayeva told the UN Security Council she feared the Afghan authorities could extend the ban imposed on women working for NGOs to the UN's female staff.
Women pushed out of society
The restrictions on women's daily life "may amount to the crime of gender persecution", UN special rapporteur on human rights in Afghanistan Richard Bennett said in a recent speech in Geneva, Switzerland.
Authorities have barred teenage girls from secondary school, and women may not study at Afghan universities.
Women have been pushed out of many government jobs, prevented from travelling without a male relative and ordered to cover up outside the home, ideally with a burqa.
Women are also not allowed to enter public parks or gardens.
There have been a litany of excuses for the closure, from a lack of funds to the time needed to remodel the syllabus.
The reality, according to some officials, is that ultra-conservative clerics are deeply sceptical of modern education for women.
Amid the restrictions on girls' schooling in Afghanistan, some are pursuing their education online.
A number of the online classes, which have recently increased in number, are held within Afghanistan, while the rest are managed from other countries, particularly the United States.