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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 human rights?

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."

Pragmatic approach

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, too."

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
Christine Aziz is a freelance journalist based
in Amsterdam. Her work on women's issues
is widely published.

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