British servicewomen making a difference for Afghan females in Helmand
“mums gossip about what is going on in the village and the mothers-in-law still have a lot of clout!”
Cultural norms prevent male soldiers engaging and communicating directly with Afghan women so, for British forces in Afghanistan, Female Engagement Teams (FETs) have become an important asset in the counter insurgency campaign.
to ensure that females in communities are also able to benefit from the work of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), small teams of servicewomen have been established specifically to build relationships with women, who are a key part of Afghan society.
Members of the FET are drawn from across the Armed Forces and, after some language and cultural training, are deployed to support their male colleagues on frontline operations.
Petty Officer Trish Wilkinson from Birkenhead leads the FET in Nad-e Ali South district of Helmand. She and her team work alongside Royal Marines from 45 Commando and soldiers from B Company 2nd Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles.
Since arriving in Afghanistan in April, the FET has been involved in a number of activities to engage women and children in the area. Recently, the team held a medical shura which was attended by over 40 women.
Trish says it’s an extremely rewarding job:
“Despite the initial cultural differences, once you get to know the females, you see they are no different from women back home. Mums gossip about what is going on in the village and the mothers-in-law still have a lot of clout! The women are so hospitable and, no matter how poor or busy they are, they always invite us in for chai (tea) and food. They want to know if we have children and, if so, where are they and how old are they. Most of the Afghan women I have met have between 8 – 15 children of their own!”
On one occasion PO Wilkinson and her team went on a joint 13 hour patrol with Whiskey Company 45 Commando and the Afghan Uniformed Police during which they found a large haul of weapons and opium in a family’s compound. Having the FET in the patrol made it easier for the Royal Marines to negotiate access to the building because while they spoke to the men, Trish and her team were able to reassure the women and children and explain what was happening.
The 41 year old, who’s served in Iraq, Sierra Leone, Bosnia and Northern Ireland is on her second tour of Afghanistan. This job is very different to previous roles Trish has been involved in on operations but she says she’s really enjoying the experience.
“I thought the job looked really interesting and it has exceeded my expectations. The FET is a specialist role and I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to meet members of the Afghan population that many people never see.”
Captain Mike Goodall from the Royal Artillery manages the FET and helps decide where their support would be useful:
“The FET has added real value to Combined Force Nad-e-Ali (South) and has allowed us to achieve some really positive results on the ground.”