A woman’s work
by Christine Aziz
Human rights or humanitarian assistance? Which takes precedence?
One is surely inherent in the other, but for aid agencies confronted
with the loss of women's rights as the Taliban gained ground
in Afghanistan, it was a question of choice. The neutral Red
Cross was in the firing line.
Overnight the women of Kabul lost every right they had clung
to under the old regime. When, on 27 September, the Taliban
Islamic militia captured the capital, the harshness of their
takeover shocked the world.
No longer were women allowed to attend universities and girls
were not allowed to go to school. They were forced from their
jobs, and obliged to stay at home unless they had a very good
reason for leaving. This kind of treatment brought into the
open a debate that had raged within aid agencies since the
Taliban had captured Kandahar and Herat in 1995. Should humanitarian
aid, the agencies asked themselves, continue to be given under
a government that denied a majority of its citizens basic
While the Federation and the ICRC kept to their position
of neutrality and impartiality, other agencies began pulling
out of Kabul, urging the international community to put pressure
on the Taliban regime to change its policies. One of the first
to go was Save The Children Fund (SCF)-UK. It had already
suspended its programmes in Taliban-held Herat, in western
Afghanistan, having earlier lobbied for a shutdown in areas
where girls and women were denied education. It wanted the
suspension, too, of non-emergency programmes where women's
employment was prohibited by regional authorities.
SCF worker Angela Kearney had spent two years in Herat to
help communities build rural primary schools and improve classroom
teaching. "Collaboration between SCF and Taliban-controlled
authorities became impossible as the Taliban refused to meet
any female staff from aid agencies," she wrote in Crosslines,
a humanitarian newsjournal. "It became impossible for
SCF to talk to women in the community."
Rift in solidarity
Within a month of the Taliban's arrival in Kabul, SCF issued
an appeal calling on all UN agencies, donors and non-governmental
organizations to "adopt a unified position in defending
the basic human rights of women and girls in Afghanistan."
Other agencies, including CARE and Oxfam-UK and Ireland,
quickly followed the SCF lead. Oxfam put on hold all its water,
sanitation and health education programmes in Kabul. Said
Marcus Thompson, Oxfam's deputy area director for Asia, "This
issue has created a rift in the solidarity of organisations
working for Afghanistan. Medical and health organisations
are allowed to have women working for them, but those like
us, who have women working on other projects, are forbidden
to employ them."
Avice Warmington stayed put. Medical coordinator for the
Federation in Afghanistan, she is one of the few European
women who continues to work in Herat. She has a dialogue with
the Taliban authorities and it is largely through her tactful
negotiations that she's been able to continue women's primary
health-care projects and still run a basic health teacher-training
programme. She believes ways must be found to work with the
Taliban so women can continue to benefit from the programme.
"I would challenge anyone who can't still work and get
through to the females in the community," she said. But
she acknowledged the easing of restrictions on female health
workers had made her work easier than that in education.
Warmington has adjusted her programmes to overcome Taliban
obstacles but ironically changes have led to improvements.
Before, basic health-care information for mothers reached
them via their children in schools. But that meant getting
only to the elite, those children lucky enough to go to school.
Now the Federation is dealing with women it could never reach
before. They are coming directly to the Herat clinics. Said
Warmington, "A lot of them come now because the clinic
is one place women can legitimately leave their homes for."
How delicate the "gender issue" has become isn't
lost on Michel Ducraux, head of the ICRC delegation in Afghanistan.
His organisation has come under considerable fire from NGOs
for what they deem its willingness to comply with Taliban
strictures at the expense of human rights. "I have had
to defend our position," he said in Kabul, "but
it's unsatisfactory in as far as it's a human rights issue,
The ICRC understands that some UN agencies and NGOs have
another mandate, and have to take a stand. But, said Ducraux,
"Our mandate is to remain impartial and work with all
parties. We try to adopt a pragmatic approach and are committed
to our humanitarian concerns." The ICRC would not be
making public statements on the subject, although it regretted
that the authorities had imposed the new rules.
It had experienced the consequences itself. Some ten to 15
women employed in the ICRC's administration had had to stop
working in the wake of the Taliban takeover. For a while they'd
worked on but the issue became sensitive, Ducraux said, owing
to the reaction of other agencies and the media. After a warning
from the Taliban, he'd asked the women to stay at home, although
they remained ICRC employees.
Ducraux questioned, however, whether gender issues had been
dramatically changed by the Taliban. "Traditionally not
so many women are employed," he said, and the ICRC's
assistance operations had not been affected, for example,
because no women were working in the field. Over 15,000 widows
continue to benefit from regular food distributions, although
collection points have been changed by the Taliban. Work with
women's associations goes on, the production of quilts to
be distributed in winter. "Of course, the women are paid
to make them at home and we deliver the materials," Ducraux
explained, conceding the real impact upon the ICRC. "It
has affected us in the sense that basic principles we believe
in are disputed. It creates a debate."
That debate may have been neatly encapsulated by the world's
media in terms of human rights versus humanitarian aid but,
as Warmington points out, the issues are emotional ones for
every field worker. "You can step out of a clinic and
say: That's it, no more. Then a father comes towards you carrying
a dying child in his arms. You just can't walk away…"
Christine Aziz is a freelance journalist based
in Amsterdam. Her work on women's issues
is widely published.
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