KABUL: Several foreign aid groups announced on Sunday they were suspending their operations in Afghanistan after the country's Taliban rulers ordered all NGOs to stop women staff from working.
Their announcement prompted warnings from international officials and from NGOs that humanitarian aid would be hard hit.
"We cannot effectively reach children, women and men in desperate need in Afghanistan without our female staff," said Save the Children, the Norwegian Refugee Council and CARE in a joint statement.
"Whilst we gain clarity on this announcement, we are suspending our programmes, demanding that men and women can equally continue our lifesaving assistance in Afghanistan."
The International Rescue Committee, which provides emergency response in health, education and other areas and employs 3,000 women across Afghanistan, also said it was suspending services.
"For IRC, our ability to deliver services rely on female staff at all levels of our organisation," the New York-based group said in a statement. "If we are not allowed to employ women, we are not able to deliver to those in need."
The ban is the latest blow against women's rights in Afghanistan since the Taliban reclaimed power last year.
Less than a week ago, the hardline Islamists also barred women from attending universities, prompting global outrage and protests in some Afghan cities.
The economy ministry, which issued the ban on Saturday, threatened to suspend the operating licences of aid organisations that failed to stop women from working.
The ministry said it had received "serious complaints" that women working in NGOs were not observing a proper Islamic dress code, a charge also used by authorities to justify banning university education.
Karen Decker, the US charge d'affaires to Afghanistan, warned that the Taliban's decision would lead to starvation.
"As a representative of the largest donor of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, I feel I have the right to an explanation on how the Taliban intend to prevent women and children from starving, when women are no longer allowed to distribute assistance to other women and children," Decker tweeted Sunday in multiple languages.
The UN chief's deputy special representative for Afghanistan, Ramiz Alakbarov, told AFP that the ban will impede aid delivery to millions of people and also have a devastating impact on the country's dilapidated economy.
"It will be very difficult to continue and deliver humanitarian assistance in an independent and fair way because women's participation is very important," Alakbarov said, adding that the UN will seek to get the ban reversed.
Germany's Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock on Sunday also called for a "clear reaction from the international community".
And the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation called the ban "self-defeating and disserving the interests of Afghan people," and called on the Taliban to reverse its decision. -- AFP