Female medical team overcomes cultural, trust barriers to help Afghan women

15 Jul 2004 | Sgt. Matt C. Preston

Medical personnel supporting the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) are building trust and overcoming cultural barriers between the Coalition Forces and people in the Oruzgan province -- once a major stronghold of the Taliban.

Navy Corpsmen and Army Medics saw over 220 women and children during two Medical Civil Affairs Projects (MedCAPs) that featured a team that consisted completely of females.  Though the security team was male, all those who had direct contact with the patients were women.

"Due to the cultural sensitivities, females are not seen by male doctors, only by female practitioners and midwives," said Lt. Cmdr. George Semple, 22nd MEU (SOC) surgeon.  "We were noticing in our MedCAPs in Tarin Kowt and elsewhere that there was a noticeable difference in the number of males versus females being seen."

During the reign of the Taliban, women were severely restricted from, or banned altogether from being seen by male doctors.  As a result, a women's clinic in Tarin Kowt, where the team performed the MedCAPs, was formed to take care of them.  Today, the clinic still operates under the guidance of the Afghan Health and Development Services, a nongovernmental agency that is helping restore Afghanistan after years of war.

Prior to Taliban, Soviet soldiers invading the Tarin Kowt area earned a reputation for sexually assaulting and being brutal toward Afghan women.  As a result, women in this area have come to fear all who wear a uniform.

"Anyone in uniform was suspect," said Semple.

The female members of the MedCAP team took the step of dressing down from their normal military appearance in order to put the patients at ease.

"We let our hair down," said Petty Officer 1st Class Tracie Ham, an independent duty corpsman from Roxboro, N.C.  "They were afraid of us in full uniform.  They figured out we're here to help."

During the MedCAPs, no males were allowed in the treatment rooms while the patients were being seen.  Ailments ranged from malnutrition to simple aches and pains.

The 22nd MEU (SOC) also donated a generator to provide electricity for the clinic and made improvements to their water system by providing a larger holding tank and a new pump.

In addition to MSSG-22, the 22nd MEU (SOC) consists of its Command Element, Battalion Landing Team 1st Bn., 6th Marines, and Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 266 (Reinforced).

For more information on the MEU's role in Operation ENDURING FREEDOM, visit the unit's web site at http://www.22meu.usmc.mil.
22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit