About the Author: Marsha Michel serves as a USAID field officer and FET coordinator with the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Farah, Afghanistan.
With their head scarves properly wrapped, members of the Female Engagement Team (FET) of the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) Farah, along with their female interpreter, Nasrin, travel on July 10, 2010, to a building where they assist in conducting an all-women's shura with nearly 60 local women from the Shib Koh district in Farah Province, Afghanistan.
The women are representatives from the six-member FET of PRT Farah. Their mission is to help the provincial government build capacity and opportunity for Afghan women by hosting and attending women's shuras and coordinating with the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) officials to find solutions to the issues the Afghan women raise. The members of the team themselves exemplify the diversity and uniqueness the FET represents: the team is comprised of a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) field officer, three U.S. Navy Petty Officers, a U.S. Army Sergeant and a U.S. Air Force Second Lieutenant.
“We epitomize diversity. We vary ethnically, occupationally and in lifestyles, so I think our differences make it easy for women to relate to at least one of us,” said U.S. Air Force 2nd Lt. Christine A. Darius of Virginia Beach, Virginia, FET Officer-in-Charge.
The opportunity for the shura arose when I received a ground-breaking request from Abdul Haidari, the Shib Koh district sub-governor: he wanted to gather the women in his district to conduct a female-only shura to address their issues and concerns.
“This is the first time that the PRT has come to our district to meet with just the women. We hope that this meeting will be the start of something new,” said Haidari.
The request by an official of GIRoA to not only create an opportunity for women to speak freely among themselves, but also to have their voices heard by their government, represents meaningful progress toward the improvement of women's rights.
“Initially, explaining that our intent was to evaluate the communities concerns rather than individual needs was a challenge. But eventually they understood it, and our next shura will be focused on the solutions they come up with that address the women's issues,” said Dalagelis, FET member from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The turnout of local women was extraordinary. To make it from one side of the interior building to the other, one had to carefully weave through a crowd of women. Promoted through word of mouth, the news of the shura spread quickly throughout the district, and the turnout was such that women had to sit on each others' laps to make room for the entire group. Some women had to peek their heads through open windows of the building in order to participate.
The issues and concerns addressed at the shura will be forwarded to Haidari, who has the ability to authorize the specific changes requested by the women based on his authority as sub-governor. Issues that can't be resolved at the district level will be directed to the provincial level if necessary.
In addition to the all-women's shura, PRT Farah also assessed an all-girls school which is currently under development by the Education Quality Improvement Program (EQUIP) in the village of Farib, located in Shib Koh. The project, which receives funding through the World Bank, will provide a schoolhouse for girls living in the area, so that they can receive proper education.
The Farah FET plans to assist GIRoA in conducting similar shuras in neighbouring districts, hoping the success of the shura in Shib Koh will spread to the rest of the province. By fostering action and the resolution of issues at the community level, by the members of those communities, it is hoped that the need for the FET's presence will eventually diminish. The goal of the FET is to empower women to address their issues directly with their GIRoA officials. Obstacles to women's rights in the country have long been overlooked, but the FET's work could prove to be an important link which will help connect women to their government.