Saturday, February 6, 2010

It's a girl thing ....

During the short time I’ve been here, my co-workers and I have visited many of the Afghan National Security Forces training centers including the Kabul Military Training Center where the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Army Air Corps train, the Central Training Center where the Afghan National Police basic training course is taught, the ANA commando training center at Camp Morehead, and the ANP Academy where the officer’s course is taught. At first, every training facility we visited, it was just men learning how to handle and shoot weapons, perform search and arrest and counter-ambush techniques, first aid, conduct security check-point procedures and applying the Afghanistan constitution.

Then one day we went to the Central Training Center to cover the Afghan National Police (ANP) basic training course. We watched a group of trainees in their 7th week learn riot and crowd control tactics, and took a tour of some of the buildings. It was in the dining facility where I saw a woman sitting in the corner by herself. I was interviewing some of the male trainees, and when I asked the interpreter if she was ANP, he said yes and indicated we could go talk to her. Her name was Hafra and she was gracious and welcoming, explaining that she had joined the ANP because no one else in her family was earning money and that she was working so her children didn’t have to. After we left her, I asked the interpreter if the men treated her as an equal, if they were welcoming and accepting; she was sitting by herself, while all around her men laughed and joked over their lunches. He looked at me and with a little shrug and a smile. Hmmm, guess that one was open for my own interpretation then.

At the police academy, I interviewed another female, a cadet about to complete a three year officer training course. Unlike Hafra, who had attended enlisted training, Mawolda and two other female students mixed freely with male trainees at the academy. The academy commander, Lt. Gen. Sayed Mohammad, changed the academy curriculum to include females and males learning and training side by side. Mawolda had the blessing and permission of her family to join the academy; her brothers encouraged her and were happy when she decided to enter the school. When I interviewed her about her experiences, she told me she had a message for the women of Afghanistan, that sitting in the house was useless, and that she saw positive changes in her country, but it needed more women to step forward.

And most recently, I attended a recruiting conference for police women in Kabul. Afghan President Karzai had mandated that 5,000 women be added to the police force, and the conference served as a forum for recruiting and training in order to meet that objective. There I met Zainab, a 21-year old policewoman from Takhar province, who joined the police two years ago over the objections of her father and family. Although her father ultimately came to support Zainab’s decision, other members of her family didn’t, and to this day she has no contact with them.

I couldn’t help but think about how courageous these women were … and how lonely their days must be. For American women, a lack of family support or approval doesn’t prevent her from serving her country and now, for women, military service is commonplace, accepted and encouraged. Of course, that wasn’t always the case. I’m sure some of the earliest women in the U.S. military – Esther Blake, Opha Johnson and Loretta Walsh, all felt a mix of feelings; doubt, anxiety, pride, courage and hope that they made the right choice. There were an estimated 350,000 American women who served in some fashion during World War II and more than 230,000 have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. Currently there are an estimated 950 women serving in the Afghan National Police and just over 1,000 in the Afghan National Army.

I can only hope that the Afghan women who have been courageous enough to serve – whether in the police forces or army – know the brave and wonderful thing they are doing not only for the women who will follow them, but for their country. I am honored to have met them.

1 comment:

  1. Great writing Sarah. Very moving!!! Power to the ladies around the world.