NANGARHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan - U.S. Army Sgt. Kristin Goehler, female engagement team noncommissioned officer in charge, holds a child during a women’s shura in Mohmand Dara District Dec. 6. (U.S. Army photo by U.S. Army Maj. Patricia Poindexter)
NANGARHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan (December 20, 2011) — In a rural village in southern Nangarhar Province, a teenage Afghan mother, weathered and weary beyond her years, cradles her nursing infant daughter, ignorant of the hardships her mother has had to endure. Looking down at her daughter’s fragile form, the mother can only hope to somehow defy the odds and give her child the life she so desperately deserves.
The young mother was one of more than 150 women who attended an all-female shura, in Shinwar District, Dec. 4, which was hosted by the Nangarhar Provincial Reconstruction Team, Agribusiness Development Team and the individual district support team’s female engagement team.
“There is often a disconnect between the government and those living in rural villages,” said U.S. Army Maj. Patricia Poindexter, Nangarhar PRT female engagement team leader. “We weren’t sure we were getting a clear picture. We hear men’s opinions, but we also needed to see the woman’s perspective.”
During each shura, the team discussed with the women a variety of topics, including violence against women, women’s rights, female education, security and health care, said Poindexter, who is from Las Vegas. The shuras offer an open forum for women to talk about their concerns with other women.
“One of the elder women in Rodat District called us the day after thanking us,” said Poindexter, who is a deployed U.S. Army reservist with the 405th Civil Affairs Battalion, Pleasant Grove, Utah. “She invited us back for a meal. She said she was thankful for the work we are doing trying to help women in Afghanistan.”
In order to fully understand the problems facing women, the team developed a multipage survey, which was handed out during the shuras. The results were then compiled to create several graphs, granting military leaders a snapshot of key women’s issues in Nangarhar.
“We wanted a systematic, quantitative approach to collecting information from women in each district,” said Poindexter. “This can only be achieved by using the same questions.”
Through the surveys, the team uncovered several alarming statistics. Despite schools, in three of the four districts the vast majority of women remain uneducated and illiterate.
“Just because there is a school doesn’t mean that it facilitates the education of women,” said Poindexter. “Girls going to school are still illiterate. In Shinwar the literacy rate was 10 percent although many of the girls had a fifth-grade education.”
Trying to determine why such an anomaly exists has proved difficult, said U.S. Army Sgt. Kristin Goehler, female engagement team noncommissioned officer in charge, with the PRT. The possible reasons include a lack of female attendance in school, low or no emphasis on the value of education or a shortage of female teachers.
“Education plays an important role in our life,” said an 18-year old living in Rodat. “Whenever our education stops problems will increase.”
Many women cannot continue their education beyond the fifth grade because there is a cultural emphasis on raising children and taking care of the home, said Goehler, who is from Milwaukee. According to the survey, the average age for a woman to marry is 16, while bearing the first child at 18.
“In Kuz Kunar the average age for women to marry was 14, while in Shinwar it was only 12-years old,” said Poindexter.
According to the survey, in Mohmand Dara, Kama and Rodat Districts, women marry at around 18-years old. Although Mohmand Dara neighbors Shinwar, the difference is more indicative of the tribe than location, said Goehler. Conversely, despite being adjacent to Kuz Kunar, Kama is likely influenced by its closer proximity to Jalalabad, the provincial capital and largest population center in Nangarhar.
Despite the hardships uncovered by the survey the women in each district were glad to participate in the shuras, said Goehler, who is deployed from the 432nd Civil Affairs Battalion, an Army reserve unit based in Green Bay, Wis.
“One of first things we tell the women is that we are there to give them a voice,” said Poindexter. “And the women want their voices heard.”
The information the female engagement team is compiling from each district will be provided to the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan officials, which includes the provincial governor, in an effort to promote change, said Poindexter.
“Ultimately, we want to bring about a positive change here in Afghanistan,” said Poindexter. “We won’t see this while we are here, but this is a critical start.”
Although women continue to struggle, most understand the important role they have in developing the future of Afghanistan, said Goehler. Bringing women together only amplifies their voices and strengthens their resolve.
“We want to be self sufficient,” said a 30-year-old teacher living in Rodat. “We must have authority of our own so we can defend our oppressed sisters.”