Security

Taliban aid crackdown spreads fear over treatment of women

By Pakistan Forward and AFP

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Burqa-wearing women walk along a road in Arghandab district, Kandahar province, on February 22. [Javed Tanveer/AFP]

KABUL -- Afghan women are being cut off from crucial aid because of a growing Taliban crackdown in areas controlled by the insurgents, according to more than a dozen relief workers.

The militants have demanded an end to projects helping women to be more independent and have barred female aid staff from entering their territory in some areas.

Given the Taliban's violent approach towards women, many fear that women will bear the brunt of the insurgents' growing influence.

While the Afghan government has made efforts to curb violence against women in the country and help pave the way for their progress through creating opportunities and jobs, the Taliban's dogmatic views on women are cause for worry.

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Afghan burqa-clad women December 19, 2019, stand with aid items received from a charity in Herat. [STR/AFP]

One such example was last month's announcement by authorities in Faryab that they have created jobs for more than 2,000 women in the province in the past 10 months.

"So far the hypothesis is that the Taliban have changed, but this is really a concrete example that they haven't," said one aid worker who did not want to be named.

Washington recently lambasted the insurgents for failing to abide by a landmark deal last year that committed them to honouring a number of security guarantees.

The agreement called for the withdrawal of foreign troops by May and paved the way for peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

The deal initially raised hopes the insurgents were open to adopting a more moderate approach on some of their hardline positions.

But workers in pockets of territory under Taliban control, primarily in northern Afghanistan, say conditions in some areas have recently deteriorated.

'They're not joking at all'

Fears are growing that the Taliban are waiting for American forces to leave before attempting to forcibly take over power and reintroduce their draconian vision for Afghan society.

The militant group ruthlessly oppressed women during its brief rule over the country in 1996-2001, banning them from working outside the home and subjecting them to violent punishments for perceived "infractions".

They have since made vague pledges to protect women's rights in Afghanistan.

In an open letter published last month on the group's website, Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar said the group was "committed to upholding and guaranteeing all rights of women afforded to them by Islamic law".

On the ground, however, aid groups say the Taliban are as rigid as ever.

Some say their work is unravelling after years of building up delicate relationships with the insurgents to reach impoverished women and girls.

The Taliban have told aid groups it is "unacceptable" to "take women out of their homes in the name of women's economic empowerment, education and sports programmes".

Pressure against these kinds of programmes is not new, but is becoming "a lot more official and widespread", a senior humanitarian aid manager said.

"When you receive a letter from the Taliban, they're not joking at all; you have to apply it," said another official working with an international aid group.

After almost 40 years of conflict, Afghanistan is almost entirely reliant on international aid and the Taliban appear set on bringing humanitarian workers to heel.

"Aid workers and the relief they provide seem to have fallen in the crosshairs of the Taliban's attempts to portray themselves as a governing entity," said International Crisis Group analyst Andrew Watkins.

Repressive approach

Afghan women working with aid groups who once regularly travelled to Taliban-held enclaves in northern Afghanistan say they have been blocked by the group from entering certain areas to work.

"We tried a lot to convince them, but they said no, [we're] not having women," one aid worker said.

Another group said it had been forced to send only male staff to oversee certain projects in Taliban-held areas.

A staff member from an unnamed aid organisation said it decided against recruiting women to work on a new aid project.

"They said they won't have access, so there's no point of having someone sit in the office," said the staff member.

In areas where the Taliban are more lenient and allow women to enter their areas for aid work, Afghan female aid workers are required to wear burqas, be accompanied by a male family member and watch what they say.

"We do not use the terms 'human rights' or 'women's rights' because they [the Taliban] are sensitive [towards these] words," said one aid worker.

Others say with the Taliban engaged in fierce battles with Afghan security forces over territory, travel has become increasingly dangerous as they risk getting caught in crossfire.

"When we travel, we take our lives in our hands," an aid worker told AFP. "Because we are usually (caught) in crossfire."

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