Afghan Rulers to Let Women


By Christopher Wren

New York Times
June 19, 2001

After a yearlong standoff, the Taliban government of Afghanistan has agreed to let the World Food Program employ local women to survey the food needs of the most vulnerable households in the country, which is suffering the effects of drought and famine. Under an agreement reached Sunday and announced today, the agency will be allowed to select, hire and train women — 30 initially — from a list of potential employees drawn up by the Ministry of Health.

The new surveys are necessary to find out which families are going hungry and how best to deliver aid to them, but that task is complicated by the government, which discourages if not prohibits social contacts between men and women. "The only way we can do it properly is to hire women, because only women can talk to women in the household," said Catherine Bertini, the executive director of the World Food Program. "That's why it's so critical."

"We also have a commitment to our donors that the food will go to those who are in need," Ms. Bertini said in a telephone interview from Ottawa, where she is traveling. "Our lists were developed five years ago. We could no longer confirm to the donors that we were giving food to the people who were most in need." Frustrated, officials of the World Food Program set a June 15 deadline, telling the Taliban that without up-to-date surveys, there was no point in continuing food deliveries.

The Taliban consented to let women be hired after the World Food Program suspended deliveries of flour to bakeries that help feed more than 400,000 Afghans in Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif. The bakeries closed over the weekend for lack of flour, but resumed baking once deliveries started again. Each family is allowed to buy 4.4 pounds of bread a day at a subsidized price.

The World Food Program already feeds an estimated 3.8 million Afghans, supplying nearly 200,000 tons of food annually at a cost of nearly $77 million. That may not be enough, a new United Nations report suggests. After the most recent harvest disaster, the report estimates that five million Afghans now have little or no access to food and will need international assistance to survive until next year's crops are planted.

The United Nations food agency already supports 257 bakeries in Afghanistan, 45 of which are operated by women. The bakeries offer one of the limited job opportunities available to Afghan women since the Taliban stripped them of the right to work under its strict interpretation of Islam. More than 500 women, mostly widows or sole breadwinners for their families, are employed at the bakeries, earning $20 and 220 pounds of flour a month.

Now, with permission to hire women as interviewers, the agency hopes to be able to pinpoint where the poverty and hunger are worst. The urgency is growing because a third consecutive drought, exacerbated by civil war and economic mismanagement, threatens millions of Afghans with starvation, according to a United Nations mission.

The mission, jointly sponsored by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization and the World Food Program, reported on June 8: "There is mounting evidence of emerging widespread famine conditions in the country, reflecting substantially reduced food intakes, collapse of the purchasing power of the people, distress sales of livestock, large-scale depletion of personal assets, soaring food-grain prices, rapidly increasing numbers of destitute people, and ever swelling ranks of refugees and internally displaced persons." Wheat and barley crops that depend on rainfall mostly failed, and drought has killed off farm animals.

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