ZABUL PROVINCE, Afghanistan - Female servicemembers are going where their male counterparts often can’t: inside Afghan homes to engage with women barred by custom from talking to male strangers.
The Female Engagement Team program officially started Oct. 1, though some teams have been operating since late May.
“By utilizing our female troops, we have an opportunity to greatly expand the portion of the population with which we engage,” said James Judge, a NATO spokesman at the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command.
Women account for nearly half of all Afghans, he said, and their influence on society is considerable, even with strict local social norms.
The engagement teams will help Afghan officials and ISAF commanders understand the communities they work in and people’s need for services such as medical treatment and education. They will also help the Afghan government to protect and earn the trust of the population.
“Engagement teams are an enabler of counter insurgency and comprehensive understanding of the operational environment,” Judge said.
The command would not release the number of female engagement teams operating in Afghanistan, but teams were operating or being set up last month in several districts of Zabul and Kandahar provinces.
Judge said the program will grow: “Persistent, targeted engagement builds trust and confidence with local Afghan women as well as village leaders.”
The teams reach out to Afghan women, who typically go inside or shroud themselves in burqas when U.S. male soldiers are present.
During elections last month, a team went to the district center in Zabul province’s Shinkai district with the job of searching any female voters.
There were none, but the team attracted plenty of attention from local men when it patrolled through the local bazaar.
One team member working in Shinkai — Sgt. Richelle Aus, 25, of Michigan City, Ind., a medic attached to the 3rd Special Operations Group out of Fort Bragg, N.C. — said she’s been visiting Afghan women with the engagement team since June.
“Most families are very receptive to us being here,” she said. “Most of the time they are just happy that we are able to treat them and bring them medicine.”
Aus and her team of three female soldiers go into villages with patrols to provide medical treatment for people who can’t reach the district center. Afghan women most commonly complain of headaches, muscle cramps and sore stomachs caused by poor hygiene, she said.
“Most of the time, if they need medical care they aren’t able to get to the health clinic because it is such a long way,” she said.
Seeing how the women lived was a culture shock for Aus.
“Most of the women I’ve met here work in the field all day and then take care of their children and do all the housework,” she said. “It made me realize how much we take things for granted back in the States like clean water, hot showers and medical care. ... Here they hope what they have just passes or they deal with it.”
Afghan women are very family oriented, Aus said.
“Everyone in the village is the family,” she said. “For the most part if there are any problems, usually they have the village’s support. And they are survivors considering what they have to live with.”
The female soldiers sometimes go inside the Afghans’ mud homes. “There are blankets on the floor and pots and pans hanging on the walls,” Aus said. “When we sit down they bring out a handmade mattress and put pillows behind you. In one house I saw a stack of quilts. The mother of the house had made all those quilts by hand.”
Afghan women would have more opportunities to improve their lot if more schools were open, she said, but added: “They are too scared to teach at schools in the villages because of the insurgents.”
Some members of the engagement teams are Afghan women who have emigrated to the U.S. and come back as civilian linguists.
Laila Khoshnaw was born in Kabul but moved to the U.S. with her parents when she was 7 years old. The fluent Pashto and Farsi speaker left a job as a nurse in Raleigh, N.C., to join a female engagement team in Afghanistan.
Khoshnaw said Shinkai, a sparsely populated district in the far south of the country where few people have access to electricity or education, would be a culture shock even for an Afghan from Kabul.
She said she hopes the teams give Afghan women a glimpse of another way of life.
The women on the engagement team in Shinkai hadn’t lost their femininity, even though they carried guns and wore uniforms. When they walked through the bazaar near Kandahar Air Field, they drew admiring stares from the locals and a police officer, who gave Aus a large apple as a gift.
“In the bazaar people stand in the street and say things (as we walk past),” Khoshnaw said. “They try to get your attention and whistle. It’s kind of ... have you never seen a woman before?”
During down time on Election Day, the team gossiped about their kids and complimented each other on the head scarves they bought at the bazaar.
Bill Aaron, 59, of Pacifica, Calif., a Human Terrain Team leader working with the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment in Zabul Province, said his unit of civilians, who are charged with talking to Afghans about what sort of government services would gain favor with them, is also setting up a female engagement team.
The retired Army lieutenant colonel said he’s noticed that Afghan men are also more comfortable talking to women.
“They are more relaxed talking to our female interpreters than they would be with males, but they speak just as bluntly,” he said.
The Human Terrain Team often gets better information from Afghan women, he said.
“We are finding they will speak more freely than the males once you get to know them as far as what their concerns are and what they are really afraid of.”
Afghan men in Zabul talk about where their next meal will come from, crop damage and farming needs; the women talk more about their children’s future and medical care.
Few women in southern Afghanistan get an education, Aaron said.
“The majority of it has to do with the Taliban and in a small number of cases, it is cultural,” he said. “Most of the men, when I ask them: ‘Would you want your daughter to have an education?’ overwhelmingly say, ‘Yes, but we can’t do it with the Taliban.’”
Lisa Akbari, whose father was born in Afghanistan, was a graduate student at the University of Wyoming before she came to Afghanistan as a Human Terrain Team analyst. Akbari said she had engaged local women on patrols in Zabul.
“You get the expectation that the women always wear burqas, but they said they often just put on a scarf and help out in the fields,” she said.
Young girls talk about how they would like to go to school but their fathers might be upset, she said.
“A lot of boys say girls don’t need to go to school,” she said. “There is a lot of prejudice against them. They don’t even have enough schools for the boys so the girls are just a second thought.”
Second SCR commander Col. James Blackburn said he’s discovered that Afghan women have a lot of influence, although it is not always obvious to outsiders.
“I can tell you through my interaction with Afghan officials, there is women’s equality (in Afghanistan),” he said. “It’s just inside the house. There’s probably women’s equality inside a mud hut in a farmer’s field.”
Commanders would only get half the perspective they needed without the female engagement teams, which were also used in Iraq, Blackburn said.
He believes Afghan women have huge untapped potential.
“Our female engagement teams will help get it outside the house into the town,” he said.