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Big Questions Loom About How The Taliban Will Treat Children, Especially Girls

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

As the Taliban solidifies their grip on Afghanistan, deep concerns about what's to come for women and children are growing. The U.N. says the conflict this year has already been especially deadly for children, with more than 500 killed and more than two dozen in just a few days of recent fighting. Big questions loom about how the Taliban will treat women and girls. A longtime Taliban spokesman said today that women will be allowed to play an active role in society, but they provided few details. Joining us now from Kabul is Mustapha Ben Messaoud. He is the chief of field operations and emergency for UNICEF in Afghanistan.

Welcome.

MUSTAPHA BEN MESSAOUD: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: So you have said for years that Afghanistan has been one of the worst places on Earth to be a child and that it has gotten even worse in recent weeks. Can you tell us just what are you seeing right now?

MESSAOUD: It is a tough place for children, and the last two months especially were really hard on children. Right now, what we're seeing is actually a pause in the conflict across the country where we have our zonal offices. My colleagues are reporting that the situation is calm, but we still have lots of internally displaced families across the country, and half of them are children.

CHANG: Well, let's talk specifically about women and girls because the last time the Taliban ruled the country, women were barred from working outside the home. Girls could not attend school. When the Taliban now says, like they did today, that things will be different, do you actually believe that?

MESSAOUD: In December, UNICEF, after quite a time negotiating and advocating with the Taliban, managed to sign a work plan with them. Now, as we speak, primary and secondary school are open in the western part of Afghanistan, in Herat, and I've checked in the southern part of Kandahar, southeast, and today 1,500 children were at school, and 500 of them are girls. So we are cautiously optimistic about girls' education. We're comforted by what the spokesperson of the Taliban said today in the press conference, but we are going to continue advocating for girls' education and women's rights.

CHANG: There is this whole generation of youth in Afghanistan who have never known life under direct rule of the Taliban until now. What do you think this will be like for them?

MESSAOUD: You're right. There is an entire generation that was born after the Taliban were ousted from power. The Taliban again today said that they will allow for youth engagement and youth to be part of the society. I think there are still numerous questions that are not answered.

CHANG: Are you concerned that UNICEF and other aid organizations will have much less access to operate within Afghanistan now?

MESSAOUD: We've had interaction with the Taliban during the takeover of the major town, and they provided us with assurances that our premises would not be touch and that our staff will be able to work. So, so far, our interaction with them is positive, and they - what they've committed to, they've delivered on it. But it's still early to make a final comment on how they're going to govern this place.

CHANG: So looking ahead at what looms, what is the challenge that most concerns you at this point?

MESSAOUD: At this point, I do not a contact - contacts at Kabul levels. I want to have a government in place, so that I can interact with them and talk about education policy, health policy and how we eradicate polio from Afghanistan, how we ensure that, you know, the community-based education and schools that we put in place are replaced by, you know, solid and static school across the country. Those are the challenges that I'm, you know, concerned about and I'm thinking about.

CHANG: That was Mustapha Ben Messaoud with UNICEF in Afghanistan.

Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us today.

MESSAOUD: Thank you for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.