'No Way' Afghanistan's Economy Recovers if Women Are Stymied, U.N. Chief Says

The United Nations chief said Monday that Afghanistan is facing a "make-or-break moment," urging the world to help stop the country's impending economic collapse.

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, acknowledging that women play an overwhelming role in the economy, appealed to the Taliban to adhere to its assurances that women will be allowed to work and receive an education.

Most of Afghanistan's economy, roughly 80 percent, is informal, according to Guterres, who said that "without them [women] there is no way the Afghan economy and society will recover."

"Right now, with assets frozen and development aid paused, the economy is breaking down," Guterres told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York. "Banks are closing and essential services, such as health care, have been suspended in many places."

UN Chief
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks at a High-level meeting on the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Durban Declaration during the 76th Session of the U.N. General Assembly at United Nations headquarters in New York, on September 22. John Angelillo/Pool Photo via AP

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

He said the U.N. is urgently appealing to countries to inject cash into the Afghan economy, which before the Taliban takeover in August was dependent on international aid that accounted for 75 percent of state spending. The country is grappling with a liquidity crisis as assets remain frozen in the U.S. and other countries, and disbursements from international organizations have been put on hold.

The U.N. chief said that injecting liquidity to prevent Afghanistan's economic collapse is a separate issue from recognition of the Taliban, lifting sanctions, unfreezing frozen assets or restoring international aid.

Guterres said cash can be injected into the Afghan economy "without violating international laws or compromising principles." He said this can be done through U.N. agencies and a trust fund operated by the U.N. Development Program as well as non-governmental organizations operating in the country. He added that the World Bank can also create a trust fund.

Leaders of the world's 20 largest economies—the G-20—are holding an extraordinary meeting to discuss the complex issues related to Afghanistan on Tuesday. On the issue of "the injection of liquidity in the Afghan economy," Guterres said, "I think the international community is moving too slow."

The Taliban overran most of Afghanistan as U.S. and NATO forces were in the final stages of their chaotic withdrawal from the country after 20 years. They entered the capital, Kabul, on August 15 without any resistance from the Afghan army or the country's president, Ashraf Ghani, who fled.

Guterres pointed to promises by the Taliban since the takeover to protect the rights of women, children, minority communities and former government employees—especially the possibility of women working and girls being able to get the same education as boys.

"I am particularly alarmed to see promises made to Afghan women and girls by the Taliban being broken," he said, stressing that "their ability to learn, work, own assets, and to live with rights and dignity will define progress."

However, Guterres said "the Afghan people cannot suffer a collective punishment because the Taliban misbehave."

He said the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is growing, affecting at least 18 million people, or half the country's population.

Guterres said the U.N. has been engaging the Taliban every day on the safety and security of its staff, unhindered humanitarian access to all Afghans in need, and human rights—especially for women and girls. "Gender equality has always been an absolute priority for me," he said.

While humanitarian assistance saves lives, it won't solve the country's crisis unless an economic collapse is avoided, Guterres said.

"Clearly, the main responsibility for finding a way back from the abyss lies with those that are now in charge in Afghanistan," he said.

Nonetheless, he warned, "If we do not act to help Afghans weather this storm, and do it soon, not only they but all the world will pay a heavy price."

Hazara Women
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that without women "there is no way the Afghan economy and society will recover." Above, a Hazara woman and children walk through a village where people still live as they did centuries ago in Bamiyan on October 3. BULENT KILIC/Getty Images