UN, Taliban officials meet over women ban

A senior United Nations official in Afghanistan has met the deputy prime minister of the Taliban-led government to discuss a ban on women working for non-governmental groups that Afghan authorities have announced.

The decision by the government to bar women from NGO work has prompted major international aid agencies to suspend operations in the country.

The ban has raised fears that people will be deprived of food, education, healthcare and other critical services as over half of Afghanistan's population needs urgent humanitarian assistance.

Aid agencies have warned the ban will have catastrophic consequences and "hundreds and thousands" of Afghans will die because of the Taliban decision.

The deputy head of the UN mission in Afghanistan, Potzel Markus, met Maulvi Abdul Salam Hanafi in the capital Kabul to discuss the ban as well as other measures including barring women from universities.

"Banning women from working in non-governmental organisations, denying girls and women from education and training, harms millions of people in Afghanistan and prevents the delivery of vital aid to Afghan men, women and children," the UN mission said.

Potzel is the latest UN official to meet the Taliban's leadership amid mounting international concern over the curtailing of women's freedoms in Afghanistan.

Last Monday, the acting head of the UN mission Ramiz Alakbarov met Economy Minister Qari Din Mohammed Hanif.

Hanif issued the NGO ban on December 24, allegedly because women were not wearing the Islamic headscarf, or hijab, correctly.

He said any organisation found not complying with the order will have its licence revoked.

Aid agencies have been providing essential services and support in the face of a worsening humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.

The Taliban takeover in 2021, as US and NATO forces were in the final weeks of their pullout after 20 years of war, sent Afghanistan's economy into a tailspin and transformed the country, driving millions into poverty and hunger.

Foreign aid stopped almost overnight.

Sanctions on the Taliban rulers, including a halt on bank transfers and the freezing of billions in Afghanistan's foreign assets have already restricted access to global institutions.

Funds from aid agencies helped prop up the country's aid-dependent economy before the Taliban takeover.

UN aid chief Martin Griffiths is due to visit Afghanistan to discuss the ban.

Potzel's meeting with Hanafi came as a UN survey indicated that a third of NGOs headed by women in Afghanistan have been forced to stop 70 per cent of their activities due to the ban and about a third have stopped all their activities.

The UN Women's Department said 86 per cent of the 151 organisations surveyed have either stopped or are functioning partially.