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Female Engagement Teams make a difference

October 2, 2012

By Sgt. Christopher McCullough

FORWARD OPERATING BASE LAGMAN, Afghanistan - While on patrol in the southern province of Zabul, soldiers from Combined Team Zabul - which is spearheaded by 3rd Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington - repeatedly encounter women during their travels through numerous cities and villages. Women account for nearly half the population of Afghanistan and have considerable influence on Afghan society; however, engaging them in dialogue is problematic as Afghan culture prohibits males from looking at or talking to women. That's where the members of the Female Engagement Teams - or FET - come into play.

FET is a program that's been around for nearly a decade and is comprised of female members of appropriate rank, experience and maturity who strive to develop trust-based and enduring relationships with the Afghan women they encounter on patrols.

"Our main purpose is to interact with Afghan women and to be role models to them; to facilitate them; to help them progress forward," said Sgt. 1st Class Laurie Eggleston, of Lauren, Penn., the non-commissioned officer in charge of CTZ's FET program.

FET members are provided religious and cultural training, in addition to basic Pashto and Dari language instruction, and other lessons, all of which prepare these Soldiers to communicate with Afghan women without offending their lifestyle.

"I was real excited to see that they gave them ([emale soldiers] a really nice background of what they were going to be dealing with," said Eggleston. "They got it from both perspectives; from how we view [the Afghan women] to how they view us, and how the different views together can affect a situation."

Eggleston went on to say that, contrary to customary beliefs, the FET is not is an extension of military information support operations.

"There's a lot of misconception that FET is supposed to be an intelligence gathering asset and that's not at all what it's meant for," Eggleston said. "Most of the females that do FET are not intel-related at all."

The importance of the FETs cannot be overstated. Together with the backing of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and the International Security Assistance Force, the FET program has the potential to influence Afghan women in a positive manner.

In turn, Afghan women are able to further persuade families and their communities to reject the insurgency and support GIRoA. That's because families and community members are more likely to back the government when the females in an area support it.

Currently, CTZ has over a dozen personnel serving on 3 FET teams in the province, though with time that may change.

"We're still in the assessment phase of us being here; kind of trying to get an idea of how much has been accomplished since our predecessors have been here," Eggleston said. "I know they've done projects with them [the Afghan women]. A lot of it is to help the women stand on their own two feet."

One of those ways involves reaching out to the local female populace through education. However, education - particularly education for females - is taboo.

So as much as the CTZ FET would like to get out to the small villages that dot the Zabul countryside, and get involved in ensuring Afghan women receive some kind of education, it's not logistically feasible, said Eggleston. That is why FET works closely with GIRoA's Radio Literacy program, an educational program whose purpose is to instill in the local populace a desire for education through radio.

One of the Radio Literacy program's goals is to establish places of learning that are equitable for women and men, boys and girls. It also emphasizes building schools and properly staffing those schools with trained and qualified educators.

"We can't get all the way out to a lot of these small villages. It's pretty impossible," said Eggleston. "But if that radio can get out there and talk to the women when their men aren't around, I definitely think that can make a difference."

Accordingly FET has been, and plans to continue, reaching out to villagers through the radio that's provided to Radio Literacy participants. The radio is capable of receiving AM, FM or shortwave radio frequencies and can be charged via hand-crank, solar panel, or operated off typical AAA batteries.

The Radio Literacy program runs six days a week, twice-a-day, at various locations, during times that prayer is not being conducted. Some of that programming contains religion, news, public service announcements and entertainment. They even provide children's programming and poetry.

Whenever possible, FET puts out messages - such as shuras being available to the women to discuss female issues or other relevant information - via the radio in a box transmitters at times most likely to reach the female populace.

"The most popular program for the females out there is the poetry program. So if we could target the poetry program and put the FET's [message] right before or right after, that would be our key times," said Eggleston.

If the CTZ FET team is successful through their intervention on the ground and the Radio Literacy program, the result could lead to the women in Afghanistan forging a new future for themselves and their country in the years ahead.

"I think it [Radio Literacy] is going to be our biggest push to reach our target audience," said Sgt. 1st Class Elizabeth Wages, of Tuscon, Ariz., CTZ FET's facilitator and one of the members of the team. "The children are our future, definitely. If we can reach those younger females now, in three years, five years, 10 years, we're hopefully going to see a stronger generation of women."

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