KHOWST PROVINCE, Afghanistan - An all-female delegation of eight Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan officials, a 330th Military Police Company personnel security detail, members of Khowst Provincial Reconstruction Team and the 3-19th Agribusiness Development Team from Indiana gathered in Jaji Maidan Feb. 10.
As the CH-47 Chinook touched down on a patch of green farmland, which stood in stark contrast from the otherwise brown countryside, local men and children lined the roads and hills staring at these newcomers while military personnel secured the surrounding area.
The group was in Jaji Maidan for one purpose: conduct the coalition's first women's shura, or formal meeting, in the last two years.
Jaji Maidan, a town situated in eastern Khowst Province, was recently named a peace district because it experiences fewer attacks than surrounding territory. It is known locally as the land of milk and honey. Because of the relative stability of the area, the shura's goal is to further that stability by targeting members of the population who don't really have a voice, said U.S. Army Maj. Rosemary Reed of Tacoma, Wash., 95th Civil Affairs Brigade, working with Khowst PRT.
The women of Jaji Maidan possess the skill to turn a common plant in the territory into rope and use it to make intricate beadwork. It is a skill the coalition forces and government members hoped could be leveraged into small business opportunities for the women and surrounding area, said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Pam Moody of Indianapolis, 3-19th ADT.
By bringing GIRoA representatives, such as the director of Women's Affairs, the participants hope to create a sustainable project. Reed said the representatives got the chance to speak directly to the women in their region and hear what challenges and issues these women face.
The idea for the shura began when the provincial governor requested something be done for the local women, Reed said. It took lots of coordination between many different units to be able to hold a shura of this magnitude.
"The shura is a very traditional way to solve problems," she said.
Shuras are a way for elders and key leaders in the community to address issues in the area. In the U.S., it would be the equivalent of attending a meeting between council members of a town. Since the area is tribal, their members are elders who have been elected to represent the tribes and villages in the area. Shuras can cover a wide range of topics such as security, law issues and in this case, women's rights.
"We have some very important women here," Moody said. "It is important to show the women at Jaji Maidan that women can be strong, can be studious, can go to high school and better themselves and their families."
A time for firsts
The meeting wasn't just a first for the women of Jaji Maidan. For the female Soldiers attending, it was the first time they had conducted an all-female mission. The mission entailed escorting the VIPs to the meeting, clearing the building where the meeting was conducted and securing the immediate area from all threats, said U.S. Army Sgt. Priscilla Salazar of Santa Ana, Calif., noncommissioned officer in charge for the PSD of the 330th MP Co.
"None of us had pulled high security on high females," Salazar said. "It lets Afghan women know that females are strong enough to do what we're here to accomplish."
It was by no means easy getting the number of women required for the mission, Reed said. The Army has no all-female companies. The planners for the meeting faced a challenge of gathering enough women with the capabilities and specialties needed to secure the site, providing security for the government officials and women attending the meeting, and conducting the shura. Since in Afghanistan only women can engage women, they had to reach out to sister companies all over Khowst Province to get the women they needed.
"It's hard to be a female in the military, period; so being able to come out here with no males, with only a few weeks training and not knowing the area to do this feels pretty good," Salazar said.
To be part of the PSD team, the females had to be at the top of their game. For U.S. Army Spc. Araceli Carrill of San Diego, Calif., who served as point for the PSD, 330th MP Co., the mission was different from any other she'd undertaken in the 10 months she's been deployed to Afghanistan. Being picked as point meant her team felt safe enough with her in that role.
"The shura is important so people know, not just Afghans but Americans, too, that women are coming up, that they do have rights, are important and have a role in society," Carrill said.
To prepare for the mission, her team trained on how to keep their VIPS safe and how to move as a unit. Although it was the first time they had done an all-female mission, she said the training was not much different than the preparation she'd received back home and in basic as an MP.
"It's important that the mission was conducted by females because the Afghan women feel more comfortable with us," Carrill said. "This way they weren't intimidated by males."
While simply having the shura was progress from previous years, the participants found themselves having to take a step back once the meeting got started. Although they had a turnout of about 60 women, the women had more urgent concerns than economic growth.
Many of them were suffering from medical needs such as diarrhea, malaria, skin problems and asthma, said U.S. Army Col. Marilyn Moorse of Indianapolis, 3-19th ADT. For the next meeting, the team promised to bring a doctor to address the women's health concerns.
One of the things the Soldiers learned was how important it was for the women to have a meeting before the shura. There are 21 villages in Jaji Maidan. For everybody to have their voice heard, the Afghan women decided two representatives from each village would be elected to bring the concerns of their area to the DOWA at the next meeting, said Moody.
"I'm honored to give these women of the government the opportunity to engage members of the population," Reed said. "The dialogue has been initiated. Now these women have a better understanding of what these people need and will be able to develop projects to help them."
The meeting shed light on how best to conduct future women's shuras. While the original objective was to help the women of Jaji Maidan sell their products in larger bazaars and make money for their families, the focus had to be adjusted to take care of more pressing needs first. Reed said the meeting was a first step toward having regular shuras to address women's needs.