KABUL (Reuters) -- Afghanistan's Taliban-run administration on Saturday ordered all local and foreign NGOs to stop female employees from working, in a move the United Nations said would hit humanitarian operations just as winter grips a country already in economic crisis.
A letter from the Economy Ministry, confirmed by spokesperson Abdulrahman Habib, said the female employees were not allowed to work until further notice because some had not adhered to the administration's interpretation of Islamic dress code for women.
It comes days after the administration ordered universities to close to women, prompting global condemnation and sparking some protests and heavy criticism inside Afghanistan.
Both decisions are the latest in a series of restrictions on women that are likely to undermine the Taliban-run administration's efforts to gain international recognition and to get rid of sanctions that are severely hampering the economy.
Ramiz Alakbarov, the U.N. deputy special representative for Afghanistan and humanitarian coordinator, told Reuters that although the United Nations had not received the order, most of its activities were carried out by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) it contracts and would be heavily impacted.
"Many of our programs will be affected and we won't be able to implement them because, unless we have participation of female staff in the assessment of humanitarian need, in identification of beneficiaries, in providing the aid and distributing the aid, then we will not be able to implement them," he said.
International aid agency AfghanAid said it was immediately suspending operations while it consulted with other organizations, and that other NGOs in the country were taking similar actions.
The potential endangerment of aid programs accessed by millions of Afghans comes at a time when more than half the population relies on humanitarian aid, according to aid agencies, and during the mountainous nation's coldest season.
"There's never a right time for anything like this... but this particular time is very unfortunate because during winter time people are most in need and Afghan winters are very harsh," said Alakbarov.
He said his office would consult with NGOs and U.N. agencies on Sunday and would seek to meet with Taliban authorities for an explanation.
Aid workers say that female workers are essential in a country where rules and cultural customs largely prevent aid being delivered by male workers to female beneficiaries.
"An important principle of delivery of humanitarian aid is the ability of women to participate independently and in an unimpeded way in its distribution so if we can't do it in a principled way then no donors will be funding any programs like that," Alakbarov said.
When asked whether the rules directly included U.N. agencies, Habib said the letter applied to organizations under Afghanistan's coordinating body for humanitarian organizations, known as ACBAR. That body does not include the United Nations, but includes over 180 local and international NGOs.
Their licenses would be suspended if they did not comply, the letter said.
Afghanistan's already struggling economy has tipped into crisis since the Taliban took over in 2021, with the country facing sanctions, cuts in development aid and a freeze in central bank assets.
A record 28 million Afghans are estimated to need humanitarian aid next year, according to AfghanAid.