Engaging women on the frontline

  • Last updated: 26 Jul. 2011 09:10

Receiving two pigeons as a gift might sound unusual, even to those used to working in Afghanistan. But to Sergeant Jeanette Corrales and her Female Engagement Team (FET) colleagues, the two birds represent how well they have managed to bond with the local Afghan community.

The pigeons can be seen most days wandering around side-by-side in the FET’s sleeping area and camp. They were presented to the FET as a “thank you” for the help they have given to Khwannen, a widow with eight children, two of whom are mentally disabled.

“Khwannen apologised for being too poor to give us a beautiful gift, but I brushed that comment off,”says Sgt. Corrales, 25. “We were told that she had found the two pigeons as babies, and she had raised them from the first day that she met us. She believed it was a sign that everything from then on would be OK. The gesture alone was priceless. The pigeons serve as a reminder that, even if we don’t come here and change the world, we made a difference to somebody.”

Female-only teams

The FETs are an initiative implemented in 2010 by the United States Marine Core under the US-led counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom. Female-only teams are being fielded to engage with the local population, particularly Afghan women who, due to social customs, rarely engage with male soldiers.

The US Marine Corps has 16 FETs based in and around Helmand province, Afghanistan. Another four are British-led.

The FETs are being run independently of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). However, ISAF Commander General David Petraeus recently called for an overall FET programme, which will set standards, requirements, reporting and a way ahead. Working groups and meetings to share lessons learned have already taken place.

“We get the opportunity to reassure the women that we are here under good intentions and only want to help,” explains Sgt. Corrales. “We, as women, can relate to them in a way that no man ever could – being mothers, sisters, or wives ourselves.”

The FETs are able to provide information about particular tribes and/or districts garnered from local sources that male Marines are not able to access, says Colonel H.G. Pratt, Civil-Military Operations, Task Force Leatherneck, Regional Command Southwest.

“Afghan women are rarely observed outside of their compounds, and there are deep cultural taboos against Afghan women, particularly in rural areas, from interacting or communicating with males who are not part of the family,” explains Col. Pratt. “Afghan women, however, have significant influence within the home and are privy to large amounts of information regarding the local areas. Without the FETs, we would effectively be cut off from half the population.”

Regional impact

The FETs have had such an impact in some regions that even local district governors have commented on the significant work the teams have done to improve the lives of Afghans. Col. Pratt describes how, at one meeting, a district governor went as far as saying the local elders and men should be ashamed for not getting involved to help their own community, while American women were not afraid to do so.

Each month the teams average over 1000 engagements with men, women and children in rural communities, visit local schools to hand out supplies, arrange micro loans for women to establish their own businesses and organise women’s shuras to encourage women to be active and vocal in the local communities. “The FETs provide a more holistic and comprehensive understanding of the local population than would otherwise be available,” says Col. Pratt.

For Corporal Julie Buskirk, 22, on her second tour in Afghanistan, joining the FETs has been eye-opening. “I would not have experienced anything like this anywhere else,” she says. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.… This is about the bigger picture. With FET presence, coalition forces have made great strides in Operation Enduring Freedom.”

Empowering Afghan women

Perhaps more importantly, FETs have also had an impact on Afghan women themselves. “Afghan women want to be noticed and want to have their opinions and concerns voiced,” says Second Lieutenant Melanie Piedra, 25. She adds that the teams are often seen as being of a ‘third gender’. “Since female marines have power and responsibility they are viewed by Afghan men as being on the same level as a male. Yet, FETs are still viewed as females, allowing the teams to have access and ability to engage Afghan females,” she explains.

Sgt. Corrales agrees, adding that many of the women are amazed at women walking around in men’s uniforms carrying men’s weapons. “Some of the women we have talked to have never seen an American woman, let alone a female marine,” she explains. “They try to carry some of our gear and find it crazy how much it weighs. I think we give them hope. We are proof that women can do anything we set our sights on.”

Being a female marine

Many marines have never worked with females before, says Cpl. Buskirk, who acknowledges that this has lead to some difficult interactions. However, over time the teams have proven their ability to their male colleagues and gained their respect.

Asked whether they would encourage other women to join the armed forces, all three FET members said they loved what they did because it made a difference, but that it could be challenging in many ways.

“All I wanted was to make my parents and siblings proud,” says Sgt. Corrales. “This is a hard job, both mentally and physically, you make a lot of sacrifices, but you know that you made a difference.”