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Afghanistan: Ban on Women Aid Workers

Volume 826: debated on Thursday 19 January 2023

Commons Urgent Question

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat an Answer to an Urgent Question in the other place on the ban on women aid workers in Afghanistan. The response is as follows:

“I would like to thank the honourable and gallant Member for raising this important issue and for pursuing this matter in such a determined and tenacious way. He served with distinction in Afghanistan and brings extraordinary knowledge and understanding to this matter.

Since August 2021, the Taliban has imposed a series of restrictions, effectively erasing women and girls from society. The ban on Afghan women from working for NGOs represents a further violation of their rights and freedoms, and it is unconscionable.

The decree will have devastating effects. More than 28 million people are expected to be in humanitarian need in 2023. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary and my noble friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon have been clearly and publicly stating that this ban will prevent millions of Afghans accessing life-saving aid. Around 30% to 40% of all staff in NGOs across Afghanistan are women. They are critical to humanitarian operations. They have access to populations that their male colleagues cannot reach, providing critical life-saving support to women and girls. According to the United Nations, approximately 47% of humanitarian organisations have currently either partially or completely suspended activities as a result of the edict.

Foreign Office officials are working with the UN, NGOs and other donor Governments to understand the impact of the ban and ensure a co-ordinated response. We support the UN’s pause on non-life-saving humanitarian operations, and we are working closely with NGOs to ensure that life-saving humanitarian assistance can continue wherever possible.

On 9 January, I discussed the matter with the UN Secretary-General in Geneva at the Pakistan pledging conference addressing the issue of the floods. On 6 January, my noble friend Lord Ahmad spoke to the UN Deputy Secretary-General before her visit to Afghanistan, and he is meeting Afghan women this morning. Our permanent representative in New York is engaging with other parts of the UN system to ensure that countries are unified in their condemnation of and response to the decree.

On 13 January, during a UN Security Council meeting on Afghanistan, the UK reiterated that women and girls in Afghanistan must remain high on the Security Council agenda. Our UK mission in Doha will continue to express our outrage about the impact of the ban on the humanitarian crisis and to lobby the Taliban across the system to reverse this appalling decision.”

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating that Statement. It is of course very welcome that the UN team, headed by the Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed, met Taliban leaders in Afghanistan about reversing the restrictions on women, including the ban on female aid workers. Today, Andrew Mitchell pointed out that they started by visiting Afghanistan’s neighbours, as well as the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. What discussions have we had with Pakistan to underscore the importance of the international community speaking with one voice and taking a unified approach? I also note that the Minister met Afghan women this morning. I hope he can tell us in his response what the outcome of that discussion was.

On funding for NGOs providing humanitarian support, Andrew Mitchell said that the FCDO would take a pragmatic approach. However, I was not clear whether that included giving NGOs sufficient flexibility as a donor to enable them to keep their female staff on the payroll and cover other essential operating costs. I hope the Minister can reassure us on that point.

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s question about Pakistan, we have been in direct engagement. I have had various meetings in the past months, including direct engagement during my last visit to Pakistan with Prime Minister Sharif. I have subsequently had various engagements with the Minister of State, Hina Rabbani Khar. I have also met Bilawal Bhutto, the Foreign Minister of Pakistan, when we discussed the issue of the abhorrent practices of the Taliban, including the latest ban.

We are engaging with other key partners. Indeed, the DSG’s visit is something that I have lobbied for and advocated for a very long time since the takeover of the Taliban for obvious reasons. She is articulate, educated and the second-highest officer within the multilateral system. She is also Muslim and wears the hijab, so the narrative of the Taliban that somehow Muslim women cannot be empowered is absolutely negated in her own person. I will be meeting her on Monday and I will share with noble Lords the discussions that she has had. I am not expecting there to be great changes. I know she also visited the new UN special representative to Afghanistan, who is also a woman from the near neighbourhood, and the head of UN Women, which sends a very strong message to the Taliban in this respect.

On the specific issue of NGOs, of course we very much favour them. We are working with the UN and other agencies and partners, including the ICRC. There are two elements to this. There are some agencies, including the World Food Programme, that, following the ban on women, face a very difficult decision about whether to keep those vital food supplies going. That has always been the case; notwithstanding the challenges that we face in Afghanistan, we continue to provide humanitarian support irrespective of this abhorrent practice. I share noble Lords’ concern that we are hearing speculation, albeit reasonably grounded, that international NGOs are being looked at too, which would pose an extra challenge. More importantly, it would mean further and greater suffering for the Afghan people.

My Lords, I welcome what the Minister just said and I agree with him. The visuals of the UN visit spoke very powerfully of the very retrograde step that the Taliban is taking. I hope that the UN leadership will be able to have some influence.

I declare that I am the chair of the UK board of one of these INGO charities: Search for Common Ground is a peacebuilding charity operating within Afghanistan with a female leader. It has alerted me to something that is also telling. What happened just within the last couple of days was that over 100 brave women gathered together in freezing Kabul to bring together and distribute warm clothes to male workers. The impact that had on me was very moving. It shows the reality of the venality of what the Taliban is doing, but also how the women of Afghanistan are still inspiring.

I will ask the Minister two specific questions. The first builds on a question which I asked him last week about the World Bank trust fund. The UK is supporting the World Bank’s work; I too support it, but it is increasingly difficult to justify support through mechanisms which provide direct funding for Taliban services when it now seeks to exclude half of the delivery vehicles for it—those delivered through women. What mechanisms are there in place in the World Bank trust fund, and with UK support, to ensure that we are not supporting the Taliban continuing the discrimination against women? Secondly, what is the UK doing to secure a public statement from our Gulf allies that this act of the Taliban is unacceptable, not just to the UK but to all regional partners and Gulf allies, and to the Islamic world?

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s first point, we are looking at additional mechanisms and I share his concern. I am aware of the INGO that he mentioned. This morning’s meeting with the women leaders involved INGOs, NGOs and, of course, former political leaders in Afghanistan—all women. It was a very enlightening insight into specific steps that we should be taking, and that will continue to be our process. Since the Taliban takeover, I have consistently said that we will be informed by our work with key partners, including on humanitarian aid. We want to identify mechanisms, because the current issues we have with aid distribution are replicated by the concerns of other agencies, as well as other international partners.

On how we will move forward with the Islamic world, we are working on that. I am engaging directly with the OIC’s special representative, and a number of countries around the Gulf have condemned the actions. They have also made visits to Afghanistan. I will be travelling to the Gulf region in the middle of February and will look to engage with a number of Gulf partners on other issues, but, importantly, on Afghanistan as well.

My Lords, first, I offer the Minister my thanks and congratulations on being active in helping the United Nations to take the initiative that it has by sending the Deputy Secretary-General and some of her colleagues to Kabul. It must be the right thing to do, and I hope the Minister will say that they will have our unstinting support in all the efforts they are making. Secondly, he was perhaps as surprised as I was to see some amity breaking out in the Security Council in recent discussion of what has been going on in Afghanistan, with apparent unanimity in criticising some of the actions taken by the regime there. Does he think that that amity and unity in the Security Council has any development potential in the future?

My Lords, I always welcome people coming together to try to work out solutions—and I say “one can only hope” in answer to the noble Lord’s second question.

On his other question, we will continue to work on our observation. I thank the noble Lord for his kind remarks. It is important that we strengthen the working of the United Nations. Often it has the access that other countries will not have. It has the structures that provide the provisions that other countries working individually will not have.

Taking up the point of the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, I assure noble Lords that we are working with the UN, the Islamic world and near neighbours. The challenge remains the Taliban perspective and I am going to be very candid. They believe that every challenge and test, erroneously and rather perversely, is an added challenge from God. That will be their interpretation. That is why we need the Islamic world to speak. I have said to them quite directly, as a direct challenge, that women’s rights were not suppressed by the religion of Islam; they were enhanced. If they claim to follow the Prophet Muhammad, they should look at his personal example. Look at who was the first person to accept the religion. He was working for someone. That person was a woman.