An all-female delegation of women from Paktika province convened for the first time April 25, 2011. Influential female Afghan representatives, like the director of women's affairs, or DoWA, for Paktika, attended.
"It is my responsibility to reach out and help the women and to let them know they have rights," said Bibi Hawa, Paktika director of women's affairs.
Paktika Provincial Reconstruction Team's female engagement team helped organize the meeting, and PRT security forces posted personnel around the hospital so the women could gather without risk of retaliation from Taliban sympathizers.
"Security for this engagement was the No. 1 priority for us," said Maj. Arnym Pedraza, PRT operations officer and FET member. "My part today was to make sure the women were safe so that they could be at peace and had no insecurities while talking to the DoWA."
Shuras are a traditional meeting where people from the local area can discuss topics important to their livelihood. The meetings encourage a free flow of communication between the government and the local Afghans - similar to town council meetings held in communities in the United States.
Hawa said the focus of the women's shura is to bring attention to the burgeoning participation of women in the Afghan government.
The meeting brought to light what challenges the women of this region are facing and gave them a chance to voice their concerns.
"This shura is very important to reaching out to the women of East Paktika," Hawa said. "Without these shuras, we wouldn't be able to get this message out that we need them to step up and take part in helping improve the conditions for the women here."
For the first time in nearly a decade, the province is stable enough to allow more involvement in everyday operations. The government is openly inviting the women here to become more involved.
"They get to have a say in their future," said 1st Lt. Emily Chilson, PRT Paktika public affairs officer and FET member. "This is a starting point for these women in a relationship-building process with their government. They have rights, and it's about getting to a point where those rights are actually enforced, and they can get an education so they can provide services such as medical care."
Hawa said while there have been steps taken to increase the security of the local area, there is still a high risk to people who are encouraging forward thought.
"Everyone thinks we are here to 'free their women' so security is at the front of everyone's mind," the DoWA said. "We need to make this meeting as safe as possible because it will encourage the women to continue helping us reach other women in this region."
According to Deanna Sahibzai, Paktika provincial councilwoman for Urgun district, the aim of this shura was to take that new freedom one step further and begin strengthening women's roles in the community and government.
"I have been fortunate enough to receive education and I have a lot of freedoms that many women here do not have," said Sahibzai. "It's important that the women see me and see that they can have the same rights I have. They need to see it is possible."
The women of Paktika province have a lot of challenges to overcome, mainly the lack of education, and the fear instilled in them from the Taliban's reign. The Taliban abducted the first DoWA for this province, and it is with great personal risk to Hawa and the women here to continue moving forward with this cause.
"The women here are very conservative and they are completely in the dark," Hawa said. "They have been raised to believe they are second class citizens and have no rights."
By engaging with the local female representatives, the provincial officials said they hope to create a sustainable effort to increase women's involvement.
"It is our hope that by educating the women at this shura, we will be able to send that message out with these women to reach the others too far away or too scared to come," the councilwoman said.
The shuras allow representatives to bring forth matters of consequence for the local region. In addition to increasing female roles in government, they brought up concerns about extending education to include high school, equality for women's programs and improved health care for women.
"We are concerned there will not be equality among the different programs that are being supported by the government," said a female attendee. "In the past, we were made promises but nothing ever came of these promises."
"We are trying to find out what they need, the interests that they have and the programs that they would like to see started here," said Navy Lt. j.g. Tamora Holland, PRT medical officer and FET lead. "When we first got here, there was no representation for the women here, and now we (do). They don't think they have any rights whatsoever, and I think that by the time we leave here, they will realize just how many they do have and how Paktika can't get any better without their involvement."
The impact of this shura extends beyond this being the first of its kind in the province. This is also the first all-female mission here. Although the security detail is comprised solely of men, all active participants in the shura are women. This not only respects the Afghan culture but also gives the women in attendance the ability to speak to the government officials with unguarded frankness.
"It's important that the doors are closed to the men so their presence does not restrict the women here from speaking their minds," Hawa said. "By having this shura for only the women, the women will be able to speak openly on what they need."
The shura confirmed the province's solidified progression to take a more self-sufficient stance with more than 400 women in attendance.
"If the women band together and continue efforts like an official women's shura where they can voice their concerns and goals, they will succeed in changing their future and their children's future for the better," Chilson said.