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Afghanistan: Ban on Women Aid Workers

Volume 726: debated on Thursday 19 January 2023

I wish to thank the hon. and gallant Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) 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 have imposed a series of restrictions, effectively erasing women and girls from society. The ban on Afghan women from working for non- governmental organisations represents a further violation of their rights and freedoms, and it is unconscionable.

This decree will have devastating effects. More than 28 million people are expected to be in humanitarian need in 2023. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and my noble Friend Lord Ahmad have been clearly and publicly stating that this ban will prevent millions of Afghans from accessing lifesaving aid. Around 30% to 40% of all staff in non-governmental organisations across Afghanistan are women. They are critical to humanitarian operations. They have access to populations that their male colleagues cannot reach, providing critical lifesaving support to women and girls. According to the UN, 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 United Nations, 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-lifesaving humanitarian operations and we are working closely with NGOs to ensure that lifesaving 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 lobby the Taliban across the system to reverse their appalling decision.

I thank the Minister; I know he takes these matters extremely seriously and has a wealth of knowledge, so I am grateful for his response to the House. He will understand the deep concern at the Taliban’s ban on women aid workers, meaning that 150 NGOs and aid agencies have had to pause their work in Afghanistan.

That severe disruption comes at just the wrong moment, as the country faces a terrible humanitarian crisis: 28 million people need aid, and famine conditions are setting in. People are dying, and more will die, without women working in humanitarian relief. Despite some minor concessions in healthcare settings, many organisations can resume programmes only with the reinstatement of women across all functions. I pay tribute to the courage of women working in Afghanistan for organisations such as Oxfam, Islamic Relief Worldwide, the International Rescue Committee, Médecins Sans Frontières, ActionAid, the HALO Trust, the International Committee of the Red Cross, Save the Children, UNICEF, the World Food Programme and many more besides.

While calling for a lift to the ban is the right course of action, we must respect the complexities of the situation. The catastrophic withdrawal in August 2021 has undermined the UK’s ability to leverage influence, but our long-standing relationship with Afghanistan is precisely why we should try to make a difference, targeting development aid, using back channels, engaging neighbours and regional partners and energising our allies.

Further to the Minister’s statement, will he say more about the conversations he and the noble Lord Ahmad have had regarding the establishment of a common position that safeguards the inclusion of women in humanitarian work? Can he say what role the Prime Minister’s special representative on Afghanistan is playing? Crucially, can he confirm that there will be no cuts to official development assistance to Afghanistan? This is not the time to reduce our support.

Sadly, our recent history with Afghanistan is underlined by passivity. There is a clear choice to make: change course now, or condemn ourselves, and the Afghan people, by repeating history again. Let us not make that mistake.

I thank the hon. and gallant Gentleman for his pertinent comments. As he rightly says, there are 28 million people in need of support in Afghanistan and the position is deteriorating. He pays tribute to the courage of women throughout Afghanistan, and the whole House will want to endorse his comments. Women will suffer from this appalling decision, but women are also critical to the delivery of aid, as both he and I have pointed out.

The hon. Gentleman asks about the work of the special representative. The special representative is fully engaged in all aspects of the Government’s policy. He stressed the importance of not reducing aid and humanitarian support and relief in Afghanistan at this time, and the Government are seized of that point. He asked with whom we are working; he will have noticed that the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation has condemned the Taliban’s appalling decision, and he may well know that Amina Mohammed, the deputy Secretary-General, is there now. She is coming in to the Foreign Office on Monday to brief us and Lord Ahmad is, as I speak, meeting leading and influential Afghan women.

This ban reminds us again that the situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating. The Minister should be aware—and I think he is—that there is increasing frustration from across the House that, despite British Council contractors, GardaWorld workforce and Chevening scholars still being in Afghanistan, in fear of their lives and hunted by the Taliban, the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme introduced a year ago has failed to relocate one person. Since our debate in Westminster Hall on this issue last week, what progress has been made by the Government to put that right?

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. This is a subject upon which he is both extremely learned and extremely agitated. I will be speaking in a debate brought forward by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) later today in Westminster Hall, where I hope to give a full update, but let me make it clear to the House that we recognise the increasing frustration of which he spoke, and in particular the points he has been making about GardaWorld workers, British Council contractors and Chevening scholars.

I pay tribute to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for his determination to secure this important urgent question, approaching your office on a regular basis all week, Mr Speaker. It is such an important topic that he has brought to the House, because what is happening is a tragedy. After 20 years of western intervention and the sacrifice of so many brave men and women to help build a better life for the people of Afghanistan, the Taliban’s barbaric and disgraceful rule and warped interpretation of Islam has culminated in a near complete ban on the participation of women in public life. Not only have schools and universities been closed for women, despite earlier promises of a “Taliban 2.0”; prominent Afghan women such as the former MP Mursal Nabizada face violence and murder simply for being women.

More worryingly, in a country facing severe humanitarian hardship, women aid workers have now been banned from operation, in a move that has effectively stopped the vital work that these agencies do to keep alive millions of poor women and children in Afghanistan, particularly in rural areas. I appreciate the Minister’s response to my written questions on this pressing matter and the confirmation that Ministers have raised the issue with the United Nations Secretary-General and his deputy. I recognise limited but vital movement by the Taliban in allowing the resumption of health-related activities, but the people of Afghanistan simply cannot wait for further small concessions.

May I ask three specifics of the Minister? First, are ongoing discussions taking place with countries that have a working relationship with the Taliban—for example, Pakistan and China? Secondly, will he commit to staying in dialogue and working closely with NGOs that are doing valuable work on the ground? Thirdly, and crucially, what progress are the Government making on the Afghan resettlement scheme, specifically for former British Council workers, as per the request from the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron)?

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. As she rightly says, this is not just about the violation of the rights of women; it is also that women are critical to the delivery of life-saving humanitarian support.

In respect of the hon. Lady’s three questions, the answer to the first two is yes: ongoing discussions with NGOs are taking place—there is a continuing dialogue. There is also a continuing dialogue on a very regular basis with all our partners and like-minded countries and with nations in the region to ensure that we present a united front, to try to improve this dreadful situation. On her third question, there will be a debate in Westminster Hall later today, where I hope to cheer up my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron).

I welcome this urgent question from my old Army comrade, the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis). What is happening in Afghanistan is a reminder of the folly of our departure in 2021. The state of Afghanistan is deteriorating, and not just in terms of the plight of women; there is no banking system and no economy. The country is sliding once again towards civil war and once again becoming a safe haven for terrorism. The UK is the UN penholder for women, peace and security, so what more are we doing with the United Nations to stand up to the Taliban? What support are we giving to NGOs such as the HALO Trust, and when will we finally start to reopen our embassy in Kabul?

I thank my right hon. Friend the Chair of the Defence Committee for his comments. In respect of his questions, I can tell him that the humanitarian co-ordinator of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Martin Griffiths, will visit shortly. In respect of my right hon. Friend’s other questions, we keep these things under almost daily review. We are doing everything we possibly can to make sure we progress this situation as best as possible.

First, I congratulate the hon. and gallant Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on securing this urgent question. This ban comes in the cruellest depths of winter, when famine and frostbite are knocking at the door, and it also jeopardises the global campaign to eradicate polio, where women play a crucial role in raising awareness. Will the Government now look at how they can urgently fund and support polio programmes in Afghanistan? Can the Minister say a bit more about what meetings the Government will be convening with counterparts around the world to discuss what more can be done to protect women’s rights in Afghanistan? Can he comment on what discussions he has had with regional partners on international engagement with Afghanistan going forward?

The hon. Gentleman raises a number of important points. With regard to polio, Britain has been one of the leading nations, if not the leading nation, in trying to push for its eradication. I will shortly be seeing in Britain people involved in the voluntary sector on polio to drive forward what has been a pretty successful campaign in this respect. Equally, it is going backwards in Afghanistan, for reasons he will very much understand. In terms of the work we are doing to improve the position in Afghanistan, I should explain to him that something like 47% of aid agencies either partially or wholly have curtailed their activities. That underlines the dangers that he points out, which are made even worse by the point he makes about the cruel weather at this time of year.

I know that Members across the House will share my deep sadness at the awful story of the murder of the woman MP, Mursal Nabizada, just this week. I thank the UN deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed, for her visit to Afghanistan. It is vital that women’s voices are heard on women’s issues, and I hope my right hon. Friend will have seen the letter signed by many senior women on the Government Benches to him last week. The majority of women in Afghanistan are only allowed to see women health visitors. Girls are only allowed to be taught by women teachers. If NGOs cannot employ women, women will not be able to see a doctor or midwife, girls will not be able to seek even a minimal education and they will end up in forced marriages and poverty. I urge my right hon. Friend not to reduce our own financial commitments, especially for this year, while all actors continue to negotiate for the operational space they need to support women.

I thank my right hon. Friend very much for her comments; she knows a great deal about this subject. I will pass on what she has said to Amina Mohammed when I hopefully see her on Monday. I have received the letter that my right hon. Friend and others signed, and we will be responding. In terms of our commitments, we have met the commitments this year that we have made, and we are seized of the importance of continuing to give the maximum amount of support we can, together with other countries and colleagues, for the reasons that she has given.

No one can fail to be horrified by the rapid roll-back of rights and opportunities for women and girls. For myself, personally, and for this Chamber, the murder of Mursal Nabizada and her security staff at the weekend brought into sharp focus what is happening. May I ask two very specific questions? First, is the Government’s position that NGOs should continue with male-only staff? Secondly, for those NGOs that have paused their programmes because they do not want to have male-only staff, is their funding secure for this year?

I cannot give precise figures on the hon. Lady’s second question, but on the first question we are completely pragmatic. The danger of cutting off aid as a result of this appalling decision is that it will not affect the elite in the Taliban, but it will affect women, girls and others across the country. We take a pragmatic view. With regard to the health sector—I should have made this point earlier—it is not clear the extent to which women are working in it. In parts of it the Taliban have allowed them to continue. We press for that space to be extended as much as possible.

It is not just by banning women aid workers that the Taliban marked themselves as an evil and medieval regime, but by stopping girls from going to school. In his discussions with the deputy Secretary-General, will he continue to emphasise the importance of every child in the world getting 12 years of quality education?

My hon. friend is absolutely right. If you want to change the world for the better, you educate girls. Britain is absolutely committed to driving forward a programme that she and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) have done so much to prosper.

After the persecution of Sikhs, Hindus, Hazaras, LGBT+ people and other minorities, the ban on women aid workers and on girls’ education is utterly deplorable and is dragging the country back into a dark medieval age. Afghanistan is in the middle of the world’s worst humanitarian emergency, with parts of the country on the brink of famine. It is vital that this ban is not used as an excuse by donors to cut funding. Will the Minister commit to no funding cuts from the UK to Afghanistan while negotiations between the de facto authorities and the diplomatic and humanitarian communities are ongoing?

What the hon. Gentleman says is entirely correct. The commitment I can give him is that we are enormously seized of the difficulties of the situation. We are doing everything we can to ensure that the negotiations he refers to are as successful as they can be.

I commend my right hon. Friend for his actions in this regard. Clearly, because other donors are reducing their funding, it is even more important that our funding is safeguarded and concentrated on those people who need it most. Can he give an absolute reassurance that not a single penny of our aid gets into the hands of the Taliban to restrict the rights of women in Afghanistan?

My hon. Friend is entirely right that all our support is through non-Government agencies in Afghanistan. We do not have normal relations with the Taliban, but we recognise countries, not Governments. We engage with the Taliban in a pragmatic and sensible way, but we do not fund them.

This is an appalling situation. Just today it has been reported that the Taliban have ordered shopkeepers to decapitate their mannequins or cover their faces—a chilling reminder of how the Taliban are eradicating even depictions of women. Are we not able to have conditionality on the assistance we offer Afghanistan at this time, to ensure that women’s basic human rights are upheld?

The right hon. Lady is absolutely right to describe that as chilling. The trouble with conditionality is that it may not have any impact on the Taliban Government, but if we follow it through it will have a serious impact on the people we are trying to serve. These are delicate areas. We negotiate as best as we can for the people we are trying to help.

Linda Norgrove, who was born in my constituency, was an aid worker who was killed by the Taliban. The foundation set up in her name does tremendous work to help aid workers in Afghanistan, which includes trying to get British university places for female Afghan medical students so that they can keep their education. Some states in the world will have some sort of relationship with Afghanistan. The Minister has mentioned the good work of the United Nations, but what efforts are being made to contact the particular states that might have greater influence over Afghanistan to get them to help us to reverse this ban?

We are all desperately sorry about the appalling death of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent, but cognisant of the good work that has resulted from her passing. He makes an important point about co-ordinating with other countries, which is something that we do all the time. For example, that was one of the specific things that we discussed when I met the Prime Minister of Pakistan in Geneva on 9 January, and we made the point that, where Pakistan has influence, we hope it will exert it—and it has been doing so.

This medieval misogyny—we ought to call it what it is—is doing huge damage to Afghanistan’s future. Does the Minister share the widespread concern that, since the Taliban have now closed universities to women, including banning them from studying medicine, and in some areas, have ordered that male doctors are not to treat female patients, we may get to the point where there are no women doctors left in Afghanistan to treat women who are ill?

The right hon. Gentleman knows a great deal about such matters and he is absolutely right. When he describes it as “medieval misogyny”, he has, once again, put his finger on an accurate point.

The Minister knows that the actions of the Taliban are taking Afghanistan back, step by step, to the barbarism of the recent past, and it is women who are the victims of that barbarism and brutality. The ban on women working in NGOs in Afghanistan has a major impact on Afghan women aid workers, who are often the sole breadwinners for their families and are being left destitute. What flexibility are the Government, as a donor, giving to those aid organisations to be able to keep those women on the payroll?

Within the parameters of proper and orderly governance, we do precisely that, as the hon. Gentleman would expect. To the first part of his question, we are working with all like-minded countries and regional powers in so far as we can to make that point through the United Nations. I will draw his specific comments to the attention of Martin Griffiths, the UN OCHA co-ordinator, who is going there shortly, as I said.

In June 2022, a team of female doctors and nurses drove for six hours across treacherous terrain to reach victims of a massive earthquake that had killed more than 1,000 people. On arrival, all the men had received treatment while the women waited for female assistance to arrive. In light of the ban, what plans do the Government have to provide aid to women and girls in the region following natural disasters?

I pay tribute to the women doctors who carried out that brave task in June 2022. I am appalled to hear what the hon. Lady said about the unequal treatment of men and women. We will continue to make sure that we do everything we can to ensure that aid is targeted, as best it can be, at those who need it most throughout Afghanistan.

I thank the Minister for his answers, which are greatly appreciated by all hon. Members present. On unspoken support such as hygiene and family planning products, what is available for women and what more can we do to ensure that there is access to basic women’s healthcare? As that support is unspoken and basic, perhaps there might be an avenue through Pakistan or other countries to get it to women in Afghanistan, who need it very much.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. Family planning and hygiene are supported. Specifically, we try to ensure that clean water, sanitation and food get through to those who need them. As we heard, 28 million people are in acute need in Afghanistan at this time.