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Taliban rulers ban women from working at non-governmental organizations

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On a visit to Afghanistan last summer, we naturally did all we could to hear from women. Many girls were out of school. Many women were pushed out of the workplace, but some still worked and others held out hope. More than one told us they had applied for jobs at international NGOs, nongovernmental organizations, which insisted on employing women as they had before. Now the Taliban, who rule Afghanistan, have banned women from working there, too. One of the affected groups is the Norwegian Refugee Council, which has suspended its operations in Afghanistan. Its secretary general is Jan Egeland, who's on the line via Skype. Welcome to the program, sir.

JAN EGELAND: Thank you.

INSKEEP: I will mention that I heard a lot about the Norwegian Refugee Council's work when in Afghanistan a few months ago. What were you doing there?

EGELAND: Well, we were working across the country, and we have been working there for decades. So we have 1,400 aid workers on the ground. We provide shelter, water, sanitation, food, emergency services and education, primary education to boys and girls. We're all over the country. And we were there before the takeover, and we were there after the takeover of the Taliban. Up until this point, we've done our work.

INSKEEP: What role did women play in all of that?

EGELAND: Essential - essential, as they do all over the world. We have 470 hard-working, committed, qualified female aid workers. They are the ones who are the contact with women and children in Afghanistan. There is a lot of single-mother households, for example. They are the only ones who can contact them. So when the Taliban tell us to only work with males, it is the same as saying you cannot continue because we will not continue. We cannot continue with males only.

INSKEEP: You must have had a debate, though, about whether to try continuing to do what little you could do without women. Did you have to have some discussion about this?

EGELAND: Yeah, well, we did. We did, but then it took a few minutes to analyze this, and we then said there are two reasons we cannot do it. One is that the quality of our work would drop immediately, and we couldn't even reach directly women. So that was a red line for us. The other one was also we would disintegrate as a principled and good organization and a good employer. If some organizations now, which I would really recommend against, stumble along with males only, they would set a horrific precedence for all of us. So I would really warn against that.

INSKEEP: I want to mention that before the last few weeks, it seemed like the question of women and girls in Afghanistan was moving in a positive direction, by which I mean even though the Taliban had banned girls from many levels of school, there was clearly a kind of democratic debate and democratic insistence on this in many parts of the country. Many localities had allowed girls back in school. It seemed like some progress was being made against the resistance of the government, but that has clearly changed. The government has cracked down in new ways. Is there a way to push back on this?

EGELAND: Yes. This has to be revoked, rescinded, reversed completely. It's been a bad couple of months now. Women was - were not allowed to go to university any more. Some regions, we've had progress. Some regions have been much more difficult. We're now going province by province and negotiating. We hope to resume work with male and female workforce working equally. We will completely adhere to the traditional - traditions of using the hijab, of separating males and females in the workplace, even having male guardians on longer travel. Those traditions we adhered to. But this ban is un-Islamic, it's un-Afghan, it's something we have to fight.

INSKEEP: Are you hearing, as is true with schools, with girls in school, are you hearing even from some more conservative members of society who are acknowledging this is a mistake?

EGELAND: We understand that this is hotly debated in in the Taliban. I met with them in Kabul and other places in Afghanistan. I met with them as they came to Oslo. They promised that females would be able to work with us. They promised education for girls. They have really gone back on their word here. And we hope that common sense will prevail. And we urge everybody who have influence on the Taliban to help us revoke this.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, have you heard any formal response to your decision to shut down from the government?

EGELAND: No, not yet. But we hear that they are willing to now discuss with the U.N. how to possible reach a compromise.

INSKEEP: Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, thank you very much.

EGELAND: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.