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Soldiers, Afghan Deputy Minister Attend Women's Shuras

By 2nd Lt. Christy Kercheval, USMC
Special to American Forces Press Service

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan, March 13, 2005 – On the heels of International Women's Day March 8, Afghanistan's deputy minister of women's affairs visited two villages in the eastern part of the country to take part in women's "shuras."

The Afghan shura serves as a forum for women in the community to discuss their concerns and needs, just as a "jirga" serves as an assembly of elder men to solve problems within the community. Women's shuras have been conducted in many villages across Afghanistan in the past year.

"The country is very traditional, and they've always worked their problems through jirgas, and they have elders come and discuss their problems," Deputy Minister Nageeba Shareef said. "Basically this was the same thing."

Shareef and several women from the coalition's Combined Joint Task Force 76, met with the women of Torkham, in Nangarhar province, on March 10. This was the area's first women's shura. More than 50 women from the village gathered under the shade of trees in a courtyard to be part of the event. Shareef was the first government official to visit the area.

"One of the rumors is that people say the central government only cares about the Kabul area and not the villages. This shows that someone from the government does care and that the central government is not only for one area, but they are for everybody," Shareef said.

Shareef began the shura by explaining to the women the importance of gathering in this type of forum. The women of the village selected one of their villagers, Baskhala, to serve as a leader for potential future shuras.

Baskhala said there was a need for a school and a clinic near the village. Coalition women on hand were able to assure her those specific needs would be met. Construction for the nearby school should be complete within weeks, and a clinic for both men and women should be finished within three months, officials said.

Other basic concerns were addressed, including a need for drinking water, soap, latex gloves to assist in unsanitary jobs, and latrines for the women. Also, the village needed the holes from old, dry wells filled in for Children's safety.

"If we have clean water and we have schools, clinics and roads people won't need to go to Pakistan for help," Shareef said, referencing the close proximity of the border to the east.

Shareef also took the opportunity to ask the women about the government of Afghanistan. "Do you agree with the government?" she asked.

The women responded with a resounding "yes."

"Did you vote in the presidential elections?"

"Yes," the women responded.

The Torkham shura ended with a traditional Afghan meal, and each woman was given a scarf brought from Bagram Air Base. The villagers then passed out scarves to each of the guests and thanked them for visiting the village.

The next morning, March 11, the group visited Chamkani, in Paktia province, which has a well-established shura in place and a school for girls. Teachers from the school were given opportunities to read poetry to the gathered crowd of more than 50 women.

The sub-governor of Chamkani, Abdul Samr, spoke to the women and encouraged their shura meetings. "Men and women need to put their hands together and rebuild Afghanistan," he said. "Women can go to school; women can go to work in an office; women can teach; women can be doctors."

Samr also took the opportunity to encourage women to vote in the upcoming National Assembly elections.

At this shura, the women's needs and concerns were specific. The head of the women's shura asked for medicine for the Chamkani hospital, compounds for the poor to live in, a building for the women's shura to operate from, and sewing machines for those who were uneducated to be able to work.

Coalition forces brought gifts that were distributed to all the women present. The girls' school received two wooden footlockers filled with school supplies.

After sharing a meal and spending time talking to groups of women through interpreters, the shura ended with fond farewells and promises to meet again.

Trying to tally the needs of the people of just two villages can be a daunting task in this country, but Shareef walked away encouraged about the future of her country.

"It's going to take a lot of work and a lot of time for people to live a comfortable life," she said. "But I've always been hopeful because Afghanistan has a lot of friends. The whole world is out there to help Afghanistan, so I have a lot of hope."

(U.S. Marine Corps 2nd Lt. Christy Kercheval is assigned to Combined Joint Task Force 76.)

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