Wearing matching green headscarves coupled with dark jeans and tuniques, Afghan NGO leader Shakila and her daughter Zhulina, eyed the 25 shoeless International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) officers sitting on floor cushions in the ISAF Joint Command (IJC) shura room nervously, before introducing themselves. Brought into the compound by ISAF's gender advisor, Lieutenant Commander Ella van den Heuvel, the women came to present the IJC leadership with first hand accounts of what it means to be female in Afghanistan.
Three months into her deployment with ISAF, Lt. Cdr. van den Heuvel invited 17-year-old Zhulina, a fluent English speaker and telecommunications worker, and her mother, to help train the IJC leadership in gender awareness issues.
“I could have provided the training myself, but I think it is important that their voices were heard,” she says when discussing her time as ISAF's first ever gender advisor, one of two in the force. “The women of Afghanistan, they told me it feels like they are forgotten.”
Over pastries and tea, the women presented the officers with their often unheard perspective on life in Afghanistan.
“ISAF is playing such an important role in Afghanistan and most of the women are so happy that we are there to help,” explains Lt. Cdr. van den Heuvel. “We should really give them our attention. It is not only their right, it improves operational effectiveness.”
“Integration of gender perspectives requires a comprehensive strategy, including operational planning and execution process,” says Lieutenant Colonel Pierre Duchesne, Allied Command Operations, Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE). “Apart from the general principles to avoid harm to women and children, this deals with taking into account effects of operations and development programmes specifically on women.”
Although the Alliance has no influence on national policies, it has agreed a code of conduct, which personnel deployed in NATO-led operations are expected to meet. Two gender advisors have also been posted to ISAF – the first time in a NATO-led operation.
“Sometimes we relate gender too much to standards of behaviour, codes of conduct and how many women we have in the armed forces,” says Lt. Cdr. van den Heuvel. She adds that gender is more than this; it is a different way of looking at the world. “If you learn to think in that way you will be much more effective.”
“Gender should be an integral part of every division's activities, every operation, planned and current, as well as its resources, intelligence, budget and finances,” says Admiral Giampaolo di Paola, Chairman of NATO's Military Committee. “It should be part of the people's mindset – this is mainstreaming.”
“We have to realize that [these women] are important in their families like it is everywhere in the world,” she says, adding that as the central family figure the women play a pivotal role in the education of their sons. “We want those boys to grow up on the right path, not to go off and join the insurgents.”
On her return to the Netherlands, she began training in gender awareness issues within the Dutch armed forces. After attending a Swedish gender advisor training course Lt. Cdr. van den Heuvel was re-deployed to the IJC in Kabul in 2009 to advise commanders on gender perspectives.
Although some soldiers were resistant and even offensive regarding her role in ISAF, she says, most were simply curious to know how a gender advisor could increase effectiveness. “The reality is that this is a new field, so in the ideal situation the gender advisor should be posted to the four-star general's office,” she explains, “I was not. You can fight against this, but that is pointless. You need to prove your worth.”
“Involving women in operations is crucial,” explained Lt. Col. Duchesne adding that educating and training troops to interact with women is paramount. “Awareness of gender-specific issues should be viewed as another available tool to enhance the survivability and capability of our troops on the ground,” says Admiral di Paola.
“Significant strides for females have also been made in the Afghan National Forces,” he adds, highlighting that the first female Afghan National Army non-commissioned officer has just reported to duty at Combined Forces Command.
She cites a memorable example of a male colleague who sat at his office one night shouting ‘push' down the phone as his wife gave birth. “He couldn't even go home,” she explains. “There are few policies to help deal with this. In terms of women, a lot of policies are in place for retention purposes. Once you have the women in the military, you'd like to keep them, and that's an extremely hard job.”
With this in mind, NATO aims to continue monitoring the effectiveness of gender advisors to make improvements to gender related guidelines and training. And, as she returns to Sweden this year as a lecturer on the gender advisor course she once completed, Lt. Cdr. van den Heuvel's says her new “duty” is to use her experiences to educate and encourage women to enter the field.