SHAJOY, Afghanistan Jan. 8, 2010— -- Hot cups of chai warmed their hands as the American soldiers waited in the bitterly cold room, its windows shattered from a recent suicide blast.
They had ridden for hours in heavily armored vehicles, driven slowly with frequent stops to inspect the road for buried bombs, to speak with a small group of Afghan women who wanted a school for their daughters and vocational training for themselves.
Girls in this conservative part of Zabul province - where the literacy rate is just 1 percent among women - are only allowed to attend school through the fourth grade, a rule created by the Taliban which remains a powerful force here.
"There is a security issue," explained a young mother, through an interpreter. By that, she means the girls could be killed on the way to school, whether by a roadside bomb or an attack on them or their families.
So the Afghan women reached out to the Americans for help. They contacted the women's affairs office of the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Zabul in Qalat, a city about 40 miles away. Unlike traditional American military bases, PRTs are a civilian-military operation with a focus on supporting local governments and communities.
That's why these two female American soldiers, Major Elizabeth Erickson, a medical doctor, and Staff Sgt. Sarah Saelens, a medical technician, travelled to listen to these women at their district headquarters. But the male village leaders had heard about the meeting at Afghanistan's version of a town hall, and promptly cancelled it.
So the soldiers sat, waiting for their male counterparts to finish their meetings with the men when suddenly they were told their meeting would be held - in secret and they needed to hurry. They were quickly led outside, around the building, through a small metal gate and then jogged down a narrow dirt path as the men continued their meetings. The soldiers passed tall stone fences until they were finally waved into the doorway of a courtyard where a house sat in the far right corner.
After taking a few steps inside, Erickson quickly ran back to her security team, alerting them to the fact that she had no radio communication and needed them to remain close. The recent suicide blast targeting American soldiers had not been forgotten.
Taliban Limit Girls' Education in Afghanistan
The seemingly endless brown and dusty landscape surrounding the town faded quickly as Erickson and Saelens ducked under the low doorway and into the room full of waiting women, all gathered on the floor surrounded by brilliantly decorated walls that were covered in turquoise, pink and yellow tapestries.
As the soldiers removed their helmets, body armour and weapons, the Afghan women pulled off face-concealing veils and burkas. They sat on opposite sides of the room and the conversation began.One of the women (whose name will not be used to protect their identities) said they wanted to a school, but needed help.
Erickson asked how this could be done safely.
"Is that allowed? It seems like Taliban has a lot of control," she asked through an interpreter. "How many girls do you think would attend the school?"
"Maybe 300 to 400 children will go to that school," replied women.
The questions and answers lobbed back and forth like a leisurely game of badminton, with the interpreter pausing play every few minutes. The meeting lasted about an hour. Afterwards, the only man at the meeting – the husband of one woman who stood above them and frequently interrupted - showed the soldiers an extra room in his home where the school could be held. He also indicated he expected to be paid rent for the room.
Nothing was decided, nothing was concrete. The soldiers encouraged the women to work with the Afghan government so they become self-sufficient and could make the changes for themselves.
"It's amazing how long it takes just with the interpretation time to have a conversation," said Erickson. "If we spend more than an hour or two in one place, we often times kind of feel a little bit of pressure. We need to go, we need to move on so we're not being a target or drawing attention to that particular location. So a lot of times it takes multiple meetings to do what we think we should be able to accomplish in a short period of time. So you kind of always have to factor that everything is going to take at least twice as long."
Americans Enjoy Enthusiasm of Afghan Girls for Education
Back near the base, life for young girls in Qalat almost appears progressive compared to life in Shajoy. A girl's school offers education to more than 1,500 girls from grades 1 through 12.
As the Americans, weapons in hand, march through the streets en route to the school, a male American soldier quietly says that visiting the girls' school is the favorite part of his job.
"Whenever we walk past the boys' school, they look like they are fooling around," he said. "But the girls want to learn."
Inside the school gates, his assessment feels right. The excited voices of young girls carry from the classrooms where they crowd around teachers asking questions, taking notes and smiling with their veils falling loosely around their heads.
The school is run by Mehmooda Maki Wal, a principal and teacher for 27 years. She said the school received threats from the Taliban, but she must educate the girls.
"When we were having the inauguration for this school one of the teachers was threatened by Taliban," Wal said through an interpreter. "They told her 'If you go to this school, you will really pay for this if you go and educate the girls.' But we fought this and we said we don't care even if you threaten us we will still make sure that we go and we educate our girls."
So the girls continue to attend classes and their parents continue to encourage them to go.
"The women have such little opportunities here, if they just get anything, even if it's just to go to fifth grade, they're just excited to get something because something is better than nothing," explained Saelens. "It's baby steps here so if we can just make things better in Qalat and then move gradually to other districts and be kind of like a role model district for the other ones then hopefully it will move to other districts."