Female Engagement Teams: It’s About Time!

n an attempt to enhance the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan, the Marines have decided to try something radical and previously unheard of in Western countries. The idea is have female engagement teams of about 4 to 5 which will accompany men that are patrolling the Helmand Province in Afghanistan. And what is their purpose? It is their assignment to reach out to Afghan women and learn from them the needs of their area as well as to gain intelligence related to the Taliban. The information gathered from these discussions would then be compiled in a database and would be of great use to aid workers and the military.

At Camp Pendleton in California, 40 female marines recently received “cultural awareness” training which discussed how this special group of Marines would accomplish their mission while still respecting the culture around them. Upon entering a compound guarded by male military units, the women were instructed that they should leave their guns, remove their helmets, and cover their hair with a headscarf. Before talking with the women, permission from the village elder would be required, and then using a female interpreter, discussions with the local women could begin.

Prior to this new strategy, the Marines did have a few female engagement teams which accompanied patrol units and it was their goal as well to try and talk with the women. However, it was difficult to gain permission from village leaders and the use of male interpreters was a major setback. Even though these setbacks occurred, the American women started to win the trust of the Afghan women. Because of the success that was seen by these troops, the Marines hope that by training full time engagement units and using female translators, greater success will occur and Afghan and American women will be able to connect and share valuable information.

What a great idea! In this particular society where men are the predominate decision makers and voice of the community and where women often do not have the voice they deserve, employing female engagement teams may prove to be a beneficial tool to aid in the reconstruction process. Even the officers of General McChrystal have said that in order to gain the trust of the people, half of the population could not be ignored.

The most successful development and aid projects have always taken into account the information given by both men and women. Through reaching out to these Afghan women, not only will their needs be discovered, but these women can see a different lifestyle in which women can have a stronger influence in their community and homes. Although the purpose of this mission is not empowerment of Afghan women per se, I believe this could be one of the byproducts.

Even in countries like Afghanistan, great strides are being made to recognize women and the important role they play in their societies. Gradually as the work of these Marines moves forward, hopefully lasting change will be made in Afghan society. I admire these female engagement teams and the wonderful work they are doing.

From the New York Times and NPR:
Letting Women Reach Women in Afghan War
Woman To Woman: A New Strategy In Afghanistan

—by JH

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