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UN struggles to convince the Taliban to allow Afghan women to deliver aid

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The United Nations has a difficult balancing act in Afghanistan. The humanitarian needs are dire, but the Taliban is no longer allowing female Afghan aid workers to deliver assistance. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports that diplomats are outraged but having trouble convincing the Taliban to overturn the ban.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Twenty-eight million Afghans, the vast majority in the country, are in need of humanitarian aid. And Catherine Russell, who heads the U.N.'s Children's Fund, says Afghan women are the lifeblood of the U.N.'s work there.

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CATHERINE RUSSELL: They have access to populations that their male colleagues cannot reach. They are nutrition experts, community health and social workers, teachers, vaccinators, nurses, doctors and so much more.

KELEMEN: And she says without them, the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan will only intensify.

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RUSSELL: And more children will die.

KELEMEN: The Taliban took control of Afghanistan more than a year and a half ago and have ignored pressure from the West to maintain women's rights. There's a lot of hand-wringing at the U.N. Security Council. British Ambassador Barbara Woodward told reporters that the Taliban have led a sustained campaign to take women out of public life.

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BARBARA WOODWARD: It shows us again that the Taliban is placing medieval misogyny above humanitarian need in Afghanistan.

KELEMEN: She says the U.K. feels caught because it wants to help the millions of Afghans in desperate need but doesn't want to legitimize the Taliban. The United Nations is trying to keep its operations going, though, for now, all Afghan aid workers are staying home. Deputy U.N. Secretary-General Amina Mohammed says the U.N. will not backfill the jobs of Afghan women with men or with women from other countries who are allowed to operate in Afghanistan.

AMINA MOHAMMED: On a personal note, I am outraged. I am terribly troubled by the fact that in the month of Ramadan that what we get from the Taliban is a strike against the teachings and the belief of Islam, the Holy Quran and the Hadith of the prophet (speaking Arabic) allows and gives rights to women on education, for work.

KELEMEN: The Taliban are also blocking women and girls from going to secondary school and seeking higher education. Some activists are calling on the U.N. to halt its work and to stop talking with the Taliban. But spokesman Stephane Dujarric says the U.N. has to deal with those who have power.

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STEPHANE DUJARRIC: We will not abandon the people of Afghanistan, and we will also not violate our bedrock of humanitarian principles. And we have to navigate that very delicate and narrow space.

KELEMEN: U.S. officials say that if the Taliban want legitimacy on the world stage, they should restore the rights of women and girls. It's a call the U.S. has made repeatedly and unsuccessfully ever since the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban takeover in 2021. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.