Holding humanitarianism hostage in the cause of Afghanistan and multilateral organizations


  • Opinion by Chloe Bryer – Azza Karam – Ruth Messinger – Negina Yari (New York)
  • Inter Press Service

World Bank data (however incomplete) indicate that the average number of female-headed households (ie households where women are the main – if not the only – breadwinners) is around 25%.

This means that on average a quarter of all households worldwide depend on women’s income. Children, families, communities and nations depend on women’s work for a quarter of their workforce.

Economists still point to the obvious challenges of counting female labor, which is often disproportionate to the limits of the formal economy, so that women continue to serve as reserve armies of blue-collar and front-line workers during industrialization.

Economists who work to document these specifics also point out that once these boundaries expand or change, women are displaced or relegated to the shadows of the informal economy and piecework labor, identifying this as an all too common failure to recognize of the importance of the kind of work that many women do, which both keeps an economy going and enables expansion and growth.

The Covid-19 pandemic should have led to a clear awareness of the need for all hands on deck, with so many women truly needed as first responders – the backbone of the public health crisis – around the world.

As economies take a nosedive and the reality of recession hits many of us, all economies need to be kept going if not to expand and grow. And beyond these very real challenges of counting women’s work — and making that work count — there is another very critical reality: culture. Lest we think only of the whims of women taking over “men’s jobs” (whatever that means in today’s world), we need to stop being blind to the fact that women are needed to serve other women.

In fact, many women in many parts of the world, including the supposedly liberal and “egalitarian” Western world, still prefer lifesaving direct services from other women – in public health, sanitation, at all levels of education, in food areas, and many, many others.

Now let’s take a moment to think about humanitarian disaster areas, where women and girls often need to be cared for – and that can only be done by and through other women.

Then, one step further, let’s imagine a reality – let’s call it a socially conservative country, facing a humanitarian disaster and heavily dependent on international organizations (governmental and non-governmental) for much-needed humanitarian aid.

How is it conceivable that women could be excluded from serving in such a context? And yet this is exactly what the Taliban proclaimed on December 24, when it banned women from working in national and international NGOs. And this is after they banned women from higher education.

Many international NGOs have halted their work in Afghanistan because they stated that they could not work without their female employees – out of principle, but also out of practical necessity. Yet the United Nations – the main multilateral entity – continues to see how to compromise with the Taliban regime, for the sake of “the greater good – genuine humanitarian needs.”

Thank goodness they let the UN continue to work with their female employees, is one of the mindsets. We will not fail to meet humanitarian needs is another UN mindset.

Of course, humanitarian needs are essential to human survival – and should therefore never be taken hostage. But why is the United Nations only responsible for humanitarian needs?

Meanwhile, the Taliban argue that these edicts on women’s work and education are a matter of religious decency, a claim not currently strongly challenged by another multilateral entity – the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which comprises 56 governments and members of the United Nations.

While individual governments have spoken out, this multilateral entity has kept relatively quiet about the Islamic justice of such a decree. Is it because this multilateral religious entity sees no need to speak about humanitarian needs?

Or is it because it sees no value in the harsh economic realities in which women’s freedom of choice plays a central role? Or maybe because there is no unanimity on the Islamic justification behind such decrees?

In light of this hostage-taking of humanitarian aid, a group of religious leaders has gathered to put some simple questions to the two multilateral entities involved. They have sent a letter with more than 150 applications from international NGOs.

Multilateralism is supposed to be the guarantee of all human rights and dignity, for all people, at all times. But as government regimes weaken, traditional multilateral entities that rely heavily on those governments also decline. Time for community based transnational networks based on intergenerational, multicultural, gender sensitive leaders.

Reverend Dr. Chloe Bryer is executive director of the Interfaith Center in New York; Professor Azza Karam is Secretary General, Religions for Peace; Ruth Messinger is Social Justice Consultant, Jewish Theological Seminary; and Negina Yari is Country Director, Afghans4Tomorrow

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© Inter Press Service (2023) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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