(Afghanistan) — Like many teachers, Salma cares for children that aren’t biologically hers.
As co-director of the Salam Cafe in Kabul, Salma was able to provide a refuge for some of Afghanistan’s poorest children — tens of thousands of whom have been forced onto the streets, according to UNICEF estimates, where they often have to beg for money to help pay for food for their families.
Salam Cafe, a nonprofit that focuses on children in poverty, has been a safe place just for kids, where they can rest during the day, get a hot meal and have access to books.
The organization has also helped educate children as well as give their families tools to farm and provide for themselves.
And then the Taliban tore Salma away from her work. (ABC News agreed not to use Salma’s last name because of safety concerns.)
The Taliban, which took over Afghanistan’s national government after a major offensive in 2021, announced in late December that women can no longer work with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), which encompass many key aid groups. Without their support, women and children are left hungry, cut off from employment and education.
Taliban officials cited “serious complaints” that some of the women working with the NGOs weren’t wearing the proper head coverings, according to the Associated Press.
The Taliban has also forbidden formal education for all girls after sixth grade, reversing a previous promise after seizing the national government.
Together, those restrictions effectively keep women and girls away from Salam Cafe. It is now run only by male staff.
“That day, when we closed the cafe for girl kids, all of them cried a lot. All the girls [were] so sad,” Salma said.
NGOs in Afghanistan provide most of the employment opportunities for women, according to Save the Children. Large organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross provide medical care while other organizations like Salam Cafe focus on the needs of specific children and families.
Without women working for NGOs, aid groups can’t help those who may be intimidated by male workers, advocates say.
The president and CEO of Save the Children, Janti Soeripto, said that when she’s visited Afghanistan, she focused on severe malnutrition in children and saw hospitals where Afghan women would only let other women examine them.
“It’s simply not possible to do our work effectively and safely if we can’t do that with women,” Soeripto said. She has said that about 16,000 Afghan women were working for NGOs. While there are some exceptions for the women to keep working, related to health care and education, according to the U.N., other concerns remain.
Soeripto said she recently spoke to Taliban leaders to push for more access to women for NGOs. Salam Cafe’s sponsor, Canadian-American Jasmin Mouflatd, said that this combination of restrictions on women is forcing them into poverty because there are hardly any kinds of jobs the Taliban will approve.
Salma no longer being able to educate girls with the cafe has been difficult, too, Mouflatd said.
“Salma is the glue that holds everything together. She is the one that will send invoices at 2 to 1 a.m. her time,” Mouflatd said, adding, “If she was somewhere like in America … she would be an asset to any company.”
Afghanistan is the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, with 28 million people in need of aid out of a population of around 40 million, according to Save the Children. But Soeripto said her organization can now do less than half of all of their work in the country, compared to before Christmas, in light of the Taliban’s ban.
More broadly, Soeripto also pointed to concerning signs that even when exemptions are granted for women, “they don’t always get followed through at a local provincial level.”
The same appears to be true of girls who want to keep pursuing schooling, the U.N. found, with about 200,000 still in secondary classes around the country despite restrictions handed down from the central government.
Salma remembered one incident in which a member of the Taliban harassed her for leaving her house without a man. She said he threatened her, telling her to wear a burqa, which is a full body covering.
“They take all our rights,” Salma said. Afghan women, she said, are being erased — from tinfoil and bags covering female mannequins’ faces to the removal or banning of female teachers and role models.
Still, Salma described the resilience of women who are opening bakeries in their kitchens and hiring other women to help them make money.
“There are some women which fight against the Taliban and their behavior. They will not stop. Never they will. They will not stop their works,” she said.
Mouflatd said that widows or female head of households are struggling to make rent. Her organization, Instant Aid, is helping these women by giving them chickens so they can sell eggs or teaching them crafts like embroidery to sell internationally.
Around a quarter of households in Afghanistan are women-led, according to the U.N.
“Decades of conflict resulted in a significant amount of women being widowed,” Soeripto said.
She believes the Taliban will continue to try to push women out of public life.
“For us to just stand by and just pretend that that doesn’t happen, I think [is] unconscionable,” she said.
In a statement, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it has also been meeting with “relevant authorities, to ensure that we will be able to continue carrying on our life-saving humanitarian operations, to the benefit of the Afghan population.”
“The international community needs sustained and increased engagement with the de facto authorities of Afghanistan, because there has to be a dialogue going as to how we can understand what the challenges are, what the issues are, and then how we can respond to that,” Soeripto said.
“I’m worried that edicts … make it easy for people to say, ‘We cannot work in an environment like this so let’s put it to work somewhere else,’ and that will be incredibly short-sighted,” Soeripto said.
For Salma, her biggest hope is for the return of peaceful stability to Afghanistan’s government while women get their “human being rights, our women rights.” She asked for the international community to “help us.”
“My biggest fear is that if I raise my voice, the Taliban will kill me,” she said. “If I fight against, that the Taliban will kill me. The Taliban will use violence against me. Maybe they use violence against my husband again, my brother? They will always use violence.”
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