Aug. 5, 2011

Female Engagement Team blazes trails in Afghanistan

By Staff Sgt. Rebecca Petrie     
116th BCT Public Affairs

ZABUL PROVINCE, Afghanistan A Stryker pulls up. The ramp lowers, and four Soldiers dismount, weapons at the ready, assault packs slung over their shoulders. The Afghan sun mercilessly beats down on their solid frames, swollen beads of perspiration growing heavy on each forehead. The leader lifts a hand and wipes the trickle of sweat from her eyes.


Capt. Iajaira Perez, Combined Team Zabul Female Engagement Team officer in charge, engages with an Afghan female during the FET's visit to a local village in Zabul province, Afghanistan. The CTZ FET is deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Rebecca Petrie, 116th BCT Public Affairs)

This is the Female Engagement Team of Zabul province, part of a new military program aimed at reaching out to the women of Afghanistan while still respecting cultural boundaries.

“FET is providing a voice and opportunities to women and children for a better tomorrow,” said Maj. Maria Rodriguez, the outgoing officer in charge of the Combined Team Zabul FET. “It is a huge honor to be part of something that will make an impact not only for this generation of Afghan women, but future generations as well.”

Currently, the CTZ FET is working with the provincial chief of police to organize projects for the local women in hopes of recruiting them to the Afghan Uniformed Police. Many insurgents sneak through checkpoints dressed in women’s clothing because there are not enough female police officers to search the women at each checkpoint. Female police also play important roles in prisons and recruiting stations.

But cultural blinders are making it hard to recruit women. One major problem for the recruiting program is the constant danger the female AUPs live in every day. The Afghan culture frowns on women working outside the home.

“The biggest obstacle facing the FET is the cultural differences and ‘rules’ regarding the women of Afghanistan,” said Capt. Iajaira Perez, CTZ FET OIC, and a native of Laredo, Texas. “Although it is something we acknowledge and try to accept, I find it to be extremely difficult to understand just because I have never experienced the hardship that these women have been through.”


Members of the Combined Team Zabul Female Engagement Team meet with local females and a member of the Afghan Uniformed Police in Zabul province, Afghanistan. The CTZ FET is deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Rebecca Petrie, 116th BCT Public Affairs)

The FET program is still in its infancy, and the U.S. military has a long way to go before all the kinks are worked out, but Perez and her team are working hard to create the necessary changes.

“FET training should not just be limited to the females (who) will be part of the team, but for the whole patrol that will be out engaging with them,” said Perez. “We need to include the males (who) will be patrolling with us and the teams need to have a dedicated force (patrol) to be consistent and to fully support the FET mission.”

The transitory nature of deployed military units also creates a difficult problem for the FETs and their mission.

“Relationships are very important to the Afghan people,” said Rodriguez. “My concern is we move in, build rapport and a relationship, and then the mission changes and we pull out. It would leave anyone leery of others coming in to assist.”

The language barrier is another issue at the top of the list.

“We really need a female interpreter,” said Staff Sgt. Christina Gedney, a member of the CTZ FET who hails from Woodbridge, Va. “Our current interpreter has a great relationship with the AUP females, but I feel a lot gets lost in translation. We hope to begin getting out into the villages to engage the local females, and with our current interpreter situation, I can foresee many issues.” 

Despite the obstacles, FETs can be a very effective weapon in the counterinsurgency fight.

“The FET is getting in places that our male counterparts can't go, and that’s talking to the women of Afghanistan,” said Sgt. 1st Class Elizabeth Jackson, a member of the CTZ FET and a resident of Lynchburg, Va. “It shows them that their voice counts and we are interested in their concerns; that we are listening and working with them to accomplish their goals and projects.”

Though the progress is slow, and the results are still almost negligible, female service members can be proud of their contribution.

“I think just our presence makes a difference in their lives,” said Perez. “These women have suffered so much and they are the true warriors, and seeing us patrolling among our male Soldiers will hopefully give them the hope that they too can break the boundaries of their culture.”

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