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Improving Afghan lives through women's empowerment

  • Published
  • By Capt. Ann Voght
  • 56th Medical Operations Squadron
Halfway around the world and five months into the deployment has drastically changed my preconceived ideas of what my role would be as the provincial reconstruction team's female medical officer. If you told me last June that I would be in Afghanistan meeting with provincial leaders from the Department of Public Health or Department of Women's Affairs to assist and mentor the development of the Afghan health system and improve the lives of families through women's empowerment, I would have looked around trying to figure out to whom you were talking.

I was supposed to be the medical provider for the PRT and run a clinic or go out on missions when the medics were not available. What did I know about third world country development or leading a female engagement team? As the saying goes, most of life is just showing up. So I showed up and began sorting through the puzzle of Afghan women's issues and how I could best help put those pieces together.

When undergoing female engagement team training I realized the enormity of the problems facing women in Afghanistan. They are overwhelming and heartbreaking.

So many are overlooked, overworked and underprivileged at best; beaten, burned or killed in severe cases. They stay in the home to raise children, work the land, gather water and feed the family. A high percentage of women do not attend school past their teenage years and most do not know how to read or write.

They are not to be underestimated, though. They efficiently run their households behind closed doors in unforgiving conditions and are a network of information through the villages and at water collection points. Despite their oppression and abuse, they are an invaluable part of the stability and rebuilding process of Afghanistan.

Herein lies the problem - how do we tap this deep well of information and support systems when there are so many obstacles involving tradition, men, burkas and mud brick walls?

Anyone who has been through Afghan cultural training knows that it is not acceptable to go up to a woman in a village or bazaar and start talking to her, even if you are female, but especially if you are a man. The process to speak to an Afghan woman can be simple, but must be methodical.

Once contact is made with a village, which will likely be through village elders or the mullah, a request is made to speak with or hold a shura with mature females of the village regarding specific topics such as the health and welfare of the community. If there are no females on the team requesting the meeting, the answer will very likely be "no."

With a female engagement team made up of female military members, civilians and very importantly, a female linguist, if trust is established the door will be open to a river of information and knowledge that would otherwise be swept away with the dust.

Once women are away from the men and have privacy, the scarves come off, the hair comes down and chatting begins. This is not so different from a social setting in our own country; it just takes a few more steps to get there. Afghan women are no different than any other women who want to have a safe place to raise their families, have access to water, food, essential goods and services, healthcare, education for the family, and an income to provide these things.

With the female's loyalty to the welfare of her family, she is very likely willing and able to provide useful input on how to improve and stabilize her village. As long as communication is performed in a socially acceptable setting, the possibilities of the outcome are limitless.

PRTs spend enormous amounts of money and conduct countless missions to evaluate, rebuild and support the people of Afghanistan. Unfortunately, we miss a large percentage of the population in our endeavors when engaging females is not a priority. Emphasis needs to be focused on communicating with, educating and supporting women in the communities of Afghanistan. Incorporating FETs with the PRTs and providing the appropriate manning and tools for their success is an important step forward in a more comprehensive approach to strengthen Afghan families, enabling them to secure a productive future for themselves.