Lessons from Female Engagement Teams

Published on 14 January 2015

Female Engagement Teams (FETs), made up of female soldiers, have been used by International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) to engage with women in Afghanistan. This rapid review looks at the open source evidence on the lessons for what worked well with the use of FETs and what were the main challenges. This includes: lessons on impact and effectiveness; selection and assessment; training; and integration and employment.

Most of the available literature is concerned with lessons drawn from U.S. experiences rather than U.K. experiences. The literature is mainly grey literature, including some theses written by U.S. soldiers, rather than published academic literature. Very few independent evaluations of FETs and their impact and effectiveness have been carried out.

Evaluations of FETs that are available indicate that:

  • Female soldiers have had a deescalating effect as Afghan males generally accepted females being searched as long as it was done by other females.
  • FETs have had positive engagement with both women and men and were viewed as a kind of ‘third gender’. This gave them the advantages, rather than the disadvantages, of both genders: they are extended the respect shown to men, but are granted the access to home and family normally reserved to women.
  • The right training, support, and working conditions helped FET effectiveness.

However, very little independent analysis has been carried out. Unclear functions and a desire to be useful meant FETs engaged in a wide variety of disparate activities and there was a great pressure to report the activities of FETs as successful. This resulted in a tendency to cite everything FETs carried out as an achievement, without really understanding cultural dynamics.

The U.S. Army Research Institute found that there is a lack of standardisation of FET assessment, selection, training, integration, and employment procedures. FET soldiers and their officers identified a number of lessons from their experiences of deploying FETs. These include:

  • Assessment and selection: Physical fitness and good interpersonal skills are important qualities to look for in a FET member. Rigorous assessment and selection procedures result in higher morale and greater mission success. FET members should be volunteers to enhance motivation.
  • Training: Training prior to deployment means FETs are better prepared. Training in rapport building and influence, and language and cultural skills is useful. Physical fitness training helps FETs carry out their missions and integrate with other units. Adopting best practices for more rigorous FET assessment, selection, and training helped integrate FETs better.
  • Integration and employment: Emphasising the value and skills of FETs can help their integration. Units which recognised the value of FETs were more likely to include them in every mission. FETs who were used according to their training and had a clear purpose were motivated to deploy again. FETs should not be used for tactical and operational missions simultaneously.

The main challenges for FETs include: lack of female interpreters; lack of access to women; lack of leadership support, training, and coordination; lack of respect from male colleagues; lack of real influence; lack of understanding of gender and institutional memory on women and gender programming; overly ambitious programming and no clear goals; potentially damaging FET activities; lack of good assessments; not rooted in the military; and loss of FET skills.

Recommendations for future use include:

  • Female engagement should be institutionalised and incorporated into future military operations.
  • A standardised and targeted assessment and selection process should be put in place.
  • Best practices should be incorporated into standardised future training for soldiers and commanders.
  • There should be a clear mission and standard procedures to enhance FET integration and employment.
  • Use FETs for better quality interactions with men and women and de-escalation of tensions.
  • Improve engagements with women by removing body armour, wearing headscarves, providing gifts and communicating well.


Image of Brigitte Rohwerder

Brigitte Rohwerder

Research Officer

Publication details

published by
Rohwerder, B.
GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report 1186


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