The Taliban’s Increasing Restrictions on Civil Society and Aid Organizations

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021 has had dire consequences for the Afghan people. Between 2001 and 2021, women and girls made tremendous gains in access to education, democratic participation, and healthcare. Now, they are again subjected to “gender apartheid”: women are barred from most employment, banned from attending school between grades 7 and 12, and are unable to move freely in public without a chaperone and a head-to-toe covering. On December 20, 2022, the Taliban issued a ban on female students attending university in Afghanistan, discharging female students from Afghan universities and threatening the educational future of Afghanistan’s 19.5 million children. Two days later, they issued a ban on women working for international humanitarian organizations.

These restrictions have far-reaching consequences for all Afghans, worsening the human rights situation and threatening the humanitarian assistance programs responding to the needs of over 28 million Afghans. This ban forced some aid organizations to pause vital programming for all genders, and immediately severed assistance to 11.6 million women and girls; millions more could be affected in the medium term. The Taliban later issued an informal exception allowing women to continue to work in the health sector—a nod to the dire healthcare situation in Afghanistan and the country’s dependence on NGOs and international organizations to provide basic health services. The bans have exacerbated food insecurity, with more than 70 percent of the population already unable to afford food and basic necessities—a number that will continue to rise. Coming during the harsh winter months, the Taliban’s restrictions on female aid workers also threatens to cut off access to clean water and increase shortages of clothing and shelter. These risks are layered on top of diminishing economic opportunities and continued brain drain, both of which have been exacerbated by the Taliban’s policies. 

Despite early promises to govern differently in the twenty-first century than they did in the twentieth, nothing the Taliban has done in the last 18 months has suggested an intention to do so. These latest egregious moves by the Taliban to bar women from university education and from delivering humanitarian aid should put to rest any remaining optimism among international observers that the regime can be moderated—and put the international community on notice that the worst may still be yet to come.

Q1: Why did the Taliban issue these edicts now?

A1: Taliban leadership remains divided on issues related to the role of women in society. Some, including the acting minister for higher education and the acting prime minister, are extremists who would all but bar women from being seen publicly, including receiving an education. Others have expressed a willingness to allow some level of female participation in society. Internal debates within the Taliban leadership demonstrate ideological differences and differing views on the relative importance of women’s rights compared to other priorities—including international recognition and securing access to Afghanistan’s assets frozen abroad.

At every opportunity, the hardliners have won out. Early in the new Taliban regime, some hoped that pragmatism and incentives would empower more moderate factions within the Taliban to moderate their policies and engage with the rest of the world. The opposite has happened. Despite the fact that governments of Muslim-majority countries across the globe have condemned the Taliban’s actions, the Taliban leadership has escalated its oppression, contradicting early promises of amnesty, freedom, and protections for women’s rights. Though the recognition of the Taliban government will come only at the price of reform, the Taliban have doubled down on its policies.

Despite being ideologically driven, the Taliban’s escalation of their extremist policies has not been capricious, but rather deliberate and methodical. For example, the Taliban’s escalation over the last several months can partially be explained by the change of seasons. Afghanistan’s need for humanitarian aid increases substantially in the winter months, and the Taliban likely believes the international community would be reluctant to jeopardize their ability to reach those in need when the situation is at its most critical and therefore accept the new restrictions. Although some programs remain operational, and enforcement of the edict varies widely from province to province, humanitarian organizations will face insurmountable logistical and capacity issues if forced to let their female workers go.

Meanwhile, the severing of access to education, services, and humanitarian aid for women and girls will create a sustained, gendered brain drain in Afghanistan. The ban on girls’ education past grade 6 and on women working not only prevents women and girls from meaningfully contributing to the future of a healthy and economically prosperous Afghanistan, but also makes it impossible for them to support themselves. As a result, many educated women with the means to do so have left Afghanistan and will continue to do so, settling in countries where, at a minimum, they are not legally barred from working, learning, and freely participating in public life. Even sectors where women are allowed to continue working, such as healthcare, will eventually be unable to deliver needed care without a pipeline of high school and college-educated women. 

As expected, the Taliban’s decrees, announced just before the December holidays, set off a flurry of international activity. On December 27, the UN Security Council issued a statement condemning the moves. On January 18, a delegation of senior UN officials met with the Taliban to try to persuade them to reverse the bans. The delegation found some Taliban officials willing to discuss lifting or easing restrictions but failed to secure any commitments. The United Nations continues to debate an official condemnation of the decree.

The United States has imposed additional visa restrictions on current and former members of the Taliban and others complicit in the repression of Afghan women and girls, and the international community continues to deny the Taliban access to frozen Afghan government assets and formal international recognition, while maintaining an international travel ban that limits the ability of 135 Taliban leaders to travel abroad—including the Taliban’s foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi. In September 2022, the UN Security Council failed to agree on an extension of an exemption that allowed some limited travel, despite urging by the U.S. government to do so. Nevertheless, the Taliban continues to generate income from taxes, duties, natural resource sales, and drug smuggling.

Q2: What will be the humanitarian impacts of these moves?

A2: The consequences of the ban extend beyond the direct recipients served by female aid workers and will increase the number of people in need of assistance. In response to the ban, several major international aid organizations operating in Afghanistan—Save the Children, World Vision International, CARE International, and the Norwegian Refugee Council – which together employ more than 8,000 in-country staff members and provided over $46 million in assistance in 2022—paused their programming, making clear they cannot continue delivering assistance without their full complement of staff. Some aid organizations, particularly those focused on medical care, have been able to continue working. Female aid workers make up nearly 40 percent of the international aid response in Afghanistan and are solely responsible for providing aid to many women and children because the Taliban’s customs and rules prohibit male aid workers from assisting Afghan women.

Prior to the ban against female aid workers, NGOs already experienced operational access impediments across Afghanistan. In December 2022, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimated that over 40 percent of districts experienced regular disruptions to assistance, and remaining districts encounter sporadic and time-limited interruptions to aid delivery. The Taliban has imposed restrictions on the movements of humanitarian staff, allowed de facto authorities and unqualified personnel to interfere in aid delivery, and has requested humanitarian organizations share their confidential data. While aid organizations refuse to share data, these restrictions make aid operations exceptionally difficult, especially in support of women and girls.

Despite decrees by the Taliban, some local authorities in Afghanistan have set their own rules for international aid delivery. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) negotiated their own terms of engagement with some local Taliban officials. Local de facto authorities permitted the IRC to restart health and nutrition programming in 10 provinces, inclusive of their female staff. Following the soft launch of health and nutrition services, the Ministry of Education approved the IRC to resume education programming in one province. While they remain proactive in seeking permission to access more communities, most of their programming remains on hold until female aid workers can safely return to work.

Q3: What might the Taliban do next?

A3: The Taliban is running the same playbook it used in the 1990s, suggesting that there are more restrictions ahead for Afghan women and girls and for international aid organizations. Elementary education remains at a heightened risk, and girls could face further age and subject matter limitations, new school licensing requirements, or be shut out of school entirely, as they were in the 1990s. While the healthcare exemption is informally in place for now, this could change at any time. Short of banning women outright, the Taliban could impose further restrictions on women healthcare workers, such as requiring male chaperones. Another more subtle threat already looms: the growing number of children who are being driven into the labor force by their family’s economic insecurity. One recent survey found that 13 percent of households already include working children.

Aid organizations that remain in Afghanistan are likely to be subject to increased regulations and oversight, financial hardships, additional restrictions on vital programming, and threats to aid worker security. In the 1990s, the Taliban shut down aid projects, banned humanitarian organizations’ recreational activities, taxed humanitarian assistance, attempted to force NGOs to hire the Taliban or put them on their boards, and eventually tried to force aid workers to move into government-controlled housing, which prompted 23 international aid groups to pull out of Afghanistan rather than meet these conditions. As a result, 400,000 people in Kabul alone were left without needed assistance. Afghans and humanitarian organizations are susceptible to a repeat of the Taliban’s restrictions and offenses, and new edicts that were not seen in the 1990s.

As the United States and partner governments continue to implement a dual strategy of condemnation and engagement, they will face the challenging reality of their inability to truly influence the Taliban’s decisionmaking on issues central to their leadership’s fundamental worldview. Meanwhile, aid organizations will continue to struggle to work around tightening restrictions to deliver needed services while making difficult judgment calls about their red lines. Such dilemmas are inevitable so long as the Taliban remains in power in Kabul.

Donors and international stakeholders should continue to reestablish financial channels for humanitarian transactions and navigate other vexing predicaments to deliver aid to the growing number of Afghans in need, especially women and girls.

Marti Flacks is the Khosravi Chair in Principled Internationalism and director of the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Lauren Burke is a program manager and research associate with the Human Rights Initiative at CSIS. Nicolas Jude Larnerd is the transition manager with the Humanitarian Agenda at CSIS.

Marti Flacks

​Marti Flacks

Former Khosravi Chair in Principled Internationalism and Former Director, Human Rights Initiative
Lauren Burke
Senior Program Manager, Human Rights Initiative