UN envoy visits Afghanistan, discusses bans on women

UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed when she met with Afghanistan's Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi. [Courtesy Twitter]

A top U.N. diplomat held talks with the foreign minister of the ruling Taliban in Afghanistan to convey international concern about restrictions they have placed on women's access to work, education and public life.

Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, the highest-ranking woman in the world body, arrived overnight in the capital, Kabul, at the head of a high-level U.N. delegation.

Her visit comes nearly a month after the Islamist Taliban tightened their already sweeping crackdown on Afghan women, ordering most female NGO staff to stop work until further notice and barring girls from attending universities. The latest curbs sparked global outrage and calls for immediately reversing them.

Mohammed told Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi in the meeting Wednesday that the purpose of her visit was aimed at "witnessing the situation up close" and delivering the international community's message about women's access to education and work, according to Taliban officials.

Muttaqi in turn complained about a lack of cooperation from the international community to address concerns such as granting recognition to his government and removing sanctions on the banking sector and Taliban leaders, saying they were causing problems for ordinary Afghans.

"Traders are faced with extreme difficulties and they are unable to transfer funds to even import food items," he said in his remarks at the meeting, captured on camera and released by the Taliban.

"If 1 million [girl] students are without education here, but what about those 9 million students, including boys and girls, who are going to schools?" Muttaqi asked. "They are also humans and need assistance to overcome issues facing them."

The Taliban have banned teenage girls from attending school beyond grade six.

"Women are engaged in educational and health sectors in significant numbers, whereas those who used to work in government offices are paid salaries at home; the number of female inmates has reduced considerably," Taliban foreign ministry spokesman Abdul Qahar Balkhi said in a statement that quoted Muttaqi as telling the U.N. delegation.

The foreign minister recounted that his government had established peace in Afghanistan on its own returning to power and "narcotics cultivation has dropped to zero," noting the country used to be the biggest drug producer in the world before the Taliban takeover in August 2021.

"Ms. Mohammed ... pledged to convey the realities as witnessed to the international community, taking firm steps for continued assistance to Afghanistan," Balkhi said.

A U.N. report published in November acknowledged that the Taliban had imposed a strict ban on opium production in April 2022 but said the ban had been ineffective and that the world body estimated that opium production increased by 32% last year.

Muttaqi was also quoted as telling the U.N. team that the number of drug addicts in Afghanistan had risen to around four million before the Taliban takeover. "They are now being treated in 83 therapy centers" across the country, but these efforts have not been acknowledged by the world nor has there been any assistance in return for these efforts, the foreign minister said.

Mohammed also met with U.N. staff, aid groups and Afghan women "to take stock of the situation, convey solidarity, and discuss ways to promote and protect women's and girls' rights," deputy U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said in New York.

In those talks, Mohammed "stressed the need to uphold human rights, especially for women and girls," and was "encouraged by exemptions" to the ban on female aid workers, Haq said. The exemptions have allowed some work to restart in areas such as health care.

Mohammed was in Kabul as part of a series of meetings that had included stops in Turkey, Qatar and Pakistan to discuss the situation in Afghanistan with diplomats, Afghan diaspora and the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

The Taliban have defended the ban on NGOs, claiming female workers were not adhering to Islamic dress codes and other Shariah principles in violation of official directives. The ban has prompted major foreign aid groups to suspend operations in Afghanistan, though some said this week they had resumed health and other programs where the Taliban have allowed women to work.

The Taliban seized power 17 months ago when U.S.-led foreign troops withdrew from the country after 20 years of war with the then-insurgent Taliban.