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Work ban for women in Afghanistan: 'I feel like a prisoner'

February 28th, 2023

The Afghan Zahida no longer leaves the house. Women who work for aid organisations such as Terre des Hommes are no longer allowed to work by the Taliban. “It stresses me out every day, it touches me so deeply. If other countries do nothing, the Taliban will win. Don't forget about us.'

Werkverbod voor vrouwen in Afghanistan: ‘Ik voel me net een gevangene’

Empty promises

For more than 40 years, Afghanistan has been ravaged by war, recurring natural disasters, chronic poverty and drought. The hard work of (international) non-governmental organisations (NGOs) is very important in the process of rebuilding the country. The population depends on it: emergency aid that is often given and coordinated by women.

After the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in August 2022, the Taliban took over. The new government promised not to limit women's rights anymore, but with an education ban for female students and also a work ban for female employees of NGOs in December, that promise is gone. The reason for the work ban: women would not have followed the strict dress code.

“If all women have to stay at home, I see a dark future for us,” says Zahida. "In some NGOs, the offices are completely empty. Many of my friends are trying to leave the country because they see history is repeating itself.”

Giving women a voice

Terre des Hommes stands behind its female employees in Afghanistan. The fact that women are not allowed to work for NGOs touches the core of our organisation. Not only because we employ many women who do great work, but also because with programs like She Leads we want to achieve the opposite by giving oppressed women a voice.

After the announcement of the work ban for women, a number of NGOs stopped their aid in Afghanistan. As Terre des Hommes we decided to negotiate with the local authorities so that we can continue to provide emergency aid to people in need. We do this under two conditions: that we have access to the most vulnerable people who need help (including women and girls) and that the safety of our female staff is guaranteed (both in the office and in the field).

"We were on the right track"

Zahida has been involved in the NGO sector for a long time. In Afghanistan she has worked for several organisations, including Terre des Hommes in recent years. She provides training to new workers in the humanitarian field - groups consisting mainly of women. Because of the work ban Zuhal has to coordinate everything from home now. That has not been easy, with considerably fewer participants and the feeling that you are trapped in your own home.

“I constantly wonder why this had to happen. Sitting at home has such a bad effect on me! I still receive a salary, but I am not allowed to come to the office. I can do practically nothing to help others. It has taken away all my hope for a better future. We were on the right track to have a happy life, just like women in other countries have. Now I ask myself every day: why don't they let me go to the office? What's the problem? I feel like a prisoner.”

"Display of power"

There is little hope for women who do not want to accept the Taliban's decision. There are no more female judges, lawyers and prosecutors to help out. Demonstrating is too dangerous because of violence by Taliban fighters. And so the only way to escape the regime is to emigrate, which is only possible if you have enough money. But because many women in Afghanistan live in poverty, they cannot leave the country without help.

“Nine out of ten women are currently at home. They have nowhere to go," Zahida says. “There is no support for us here in Afghanistan. I think we can only solve this situation from the outside. Other countries will have to put pressure on the Taliban government. Organisations abroad can of course help us by donating money, but it will change nothing here. And that is not because we are an Islamic country, because in several other islamic countries women are also allowed to go to school and work. This ban is a display of power.”

"Don't forget about us"

Zahida's message is clear: "Don't forget about us. If other countries do nothing, the Taliban wins. And that can also have a negative effect on other countries. As human beings we have the right to work and study. The United Nations have a responsibility to do something for us. So as you read this, think of your own wives and children. If one day they were banned from the office or university, what would you do? Try to imagine our situation and help us to make a change. This prohibition is political, not for religious or legal reasons. So please don't sacrifice our rights for their political gain."

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