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NEWS | April 28, 2012

Kentucky citizen-soldiers help empower women in Afghanistan

By Staff Sgt. Paul Glover Kentucky National Guard Public Affairs Office

Southern Afghanistan certainly has some issues when it comes to gender equality. In an area where the Taliban regime, infamous for its oppression of women was founded, access to education for women can be limited. However, that doesn’t decrease the desire for these women to learn, according to Kentucky National Guard Agribusiness Development Team 4’s Capt. Varinka Ensminger, a resident of Lexington, Ky.

“They basically had a need for some type of women’s training,” she said. “We decided to do training classes.”

To organize the program, Ensminger worked in partnership with soldiers on a local coalition base near the villages and local Afghan officials. Training dates and times were advertised over the radio.

“What we did is we came up with a class list and weekly, we would have anywhere between ten to twelve women that would come in and seek training for a couple hours,” Ensminger explained. “We would have the linguist go through slides in different Agricultural disciplines and plants, how to build a garden box, how to water plants, temperature, composting, mulch and disease, and how to care for plants.”

“At first, the women were quiet, they were timid,” she said. “They were really coming there because they just wanted stuff, and after about the second week, they realized that we wanted them to participate. They asked questions, they brought their kids in, and their kids interacted with us.”

“We took a lot of questions from them to try to cater the next week on things that they wanted to learn. Then we’d have a block of instruction…to address them on women’s rights, hand out some material on laws,” she added.

“To coincide with that, a lot of these women would bring their children, and they liked the independent time where they could concentrate,” said Ensminger. “So Spc. Baldwin, who went with me very often, she would maintain the children’s side of things. Because there was support from the district, they got us a classroom, and more and more children were coming.”

“It started out with five and we ended up with almost 35 kids one day,” Ensminger said. “So it took some extra resources from the Ag Team to help out.”

“I worked with the Children’s Literacy Programs,” explained Louisville, Ky.’s Spc. Emily Baldwin. “We basically went over the Pashtu alphabet, and we’d translate it into English alphabet as well as numbers. We listened to the radio program for an hour on Saturdays…it was literacy program for the children.”

“After that, we’d have fun time and play games,” Baldwin said with a grin. “We tried to teach horse shoes, and that was awesome.”

“I liked her on the mission because the children got to know her familiar face like they knew mine, so they weren’t afraid to really go to her immediately,” Ensminger said of Baldwin.

“I enjoyed working with the kids. They were fun,” Baldwin recalled with a smile. “At first, they wouldn’t touch me or come around me. Before I was leaving, they would not get off my legs and arms. It was definitely that at first they were kind of intimidated, and then they realized (we were friendly).”

“We had Rio (Spc. Michael Hilario) come out to get a male perspective with it too, and they absolutely adored him,” Baldwin added. “So it was great for them to see a different side of the soldiers.”

“Spc. Baldwin was key working with the children. Spc. Hilario came in when we needed extra assistance working with the children,” Ensminger said. “Baldwin and Hilario really stepped in and wanted to be involved. They did such a great job, and they were very receptive. The children loved them.”

“Not only that, but the Security Team and the other folks that were there watching, making sure everyone was protected, without them, none of that would be feasible,” Ensminger added.

“Just being able to make a difference with the kids (was most rewarding)…just working with them and helping to teach them,” she said.

“The women would bring us in local food and we’d have lunch with them occasionally,” Baldwin recalled. “They’d bring us flowers in weekly. The kids, we’d bring them coloring books, teach them how to color. I think the feedback was mostly positive from the women’s perspective.”

Baldwin offered her insights to local women’s reaction to the training initiatives.

“I thought they were pretty receptive. More receptive than I thought they’d be,” she said. “They loved what we were helping them do—they could tell that we were making progress and a commitment to them, so I think they were very receptive towards it.”

“They were very receptive,” Ensminger added. “They had lots of questions. We found out that a lot of them were tenant farmers and a lot of them were widows. With the widows, probably the biggest piece of information we found out was they would grow okra and tomatoes, and they would get a share of whatever they worked on that farm, so…they got 20 percent, and with that 20 percent, they were able to feed their family with it, and if any of it was stable enough, they would take it and try to sell it at market.”

“A lot of them also did sewing. So, we were able to train them in agriculture, train them in rule of law, and then be able to assist them with some extra material we had to make stuff for their families,” Ensminger said.

“If we weren’t there for some reason, they were continually asking for us. Some of them would even come in during the week and ask why we weren’t there,” Ensminger recalled. “They (base personnel) said, ‘well, they don’t live here. They come in from Pasab, and they generally come on the day of training.’ It was very gratifying to know that they (Afghan women) wanted to come and they were willing to risk their lives.”

“There was kind of one ringleader who took a leadership role, and would kind of assemble everybody and assist everyone,” Ensminger described of the women’s classes. “She was very versed at organizing, she knew who everybody was, she was kind of like the social director. Then she also kind of helped everybody with the sewing, working the machines, kind of assisting them.”

“I enjoyed that I know these women were stuck in their houses, were suppressed, were not allowed to go out, were not allowed to go seek education. They knew it was a safety risk, but I appreciated that they wanted to come out, they had this hunger for knowledge, and they really wanted some type of interactions,” Ensminger said. “The least I could do for them was pay attention and provide them with some type of education or something that made them happy.”

“They loved that I knew them by name, they would come bearing gifts that I never needed. But their appreciation for somebody to take the time to sit and talk with them, and try to educate them and provide them supplies…they really just enjoyed the social interaction, and they really enjoyed the fact that somebody was taking the time to listen to them and to teach them,” she added.

“I loved their kids, I loved that their kids were getting something out of it. We were able to give their kids radios and books, coloring books and Pashtu books under the third grade level on reading and writing,” Ensminger continued. “So it was nice that they were able to take that stuff home and their children were benefiting too.”

“When the word got out, men were actually coming, bringing their children to receive some type of organizational training, because a lot of the schools in the district were closed down for a while till the walls were built up for safety,” Ensminger explained. “So this was like a supplemental (program) almost till some of those projects with the other agencies were completed.”

While all those involved with the women’s empowerment programs described its success, the realities of an area where women are treated as second class citizens eventually caught up.

“We stopped the initiatives because it had posed a bit of a safety risk,” Ensminger explained. “Right now, the male leaders and the maliks (village chiefs) prefer that their women stay in the villages and the districts. They’ve offered for us just to come in and try doing some onsite training (in the villages), but we don’t have a safe number of people to do that. They don’t want men around, and 90 percent of our unit is men.”

“However…we’ve been able to work other avenues (nearby),” Ensminger noted. “We were able to get off a food-preservation canning program that’s been a couple months in the works, and that was fully conducted in the village by one of the females. She’s versed in a lot of different educational disciplines, not to the proficiency of a full-fledged university instructor, but she is seeking knowledge and taking classes to get there.”

“I’ve worked with her and a contractor, and together, he is very versed in the business side and her in the development side. The two of them were able to get together, and were able to put together a project,” she explained.

“Really, all I had to do was coach them, advise them, and they were pretty much able to run the show, conduct the training, and report back by phone and email,” Ensminger continued. “They supply photos and basically do what I do as a Project Manager on a smaller scale…they did it with complete success–and that gives me hope that they understand what the requirements are and what they need to do to really help the people within their community.”

“I was just able to see that the women are willing to risk their lives to come out and seek knowledge and training,” Ensminger explained about the rewards of women’s initiatives. “I know that there’s a need for it–it’s just kind of working through that they’re suppressed here and the security issues.”

“Really getting involved, not sitting behind a desk…you know, putting in the administrative work and then seeing a project go to completion and seeing their (local women’s) reaction, seeing them get into it, and really understanding that’s it’s not me that’s requiring them to do it, Ensminger continued. “It’s to better yourself and better your community, and better the longevity of Afghanistan.”

“I wish we were still going out there,” Baldwin concluded. “It’s upsetting, but it’s understandable.”

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