Communications technology, and issues involving women, peace and security were the focus of a recent U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) sponsored military to military (M2M) engagement event, designed to bring women serving in African militaries in direct contact with American female military counterparts. The goal was to establish, build and nurture relationships that normally get over-looked in the traditionally male-dominated environment of military service, and to share best practices of “gender mainstreaming.”
U.S. Africa Command’s Directorate of Command, Control, Communications and Computer Systems (C4), also referred to as J6, hosted nine female officers and two senior enlisted NCOs from nine African nations Sept. 14-20, in Atlanta and Washington during a week that included cultural activities, demonstrations of tactical equipment, briefs on operational processes and discussions on policies to empower women. Women make up half the world’s population but due to culture, they have traditionally been denied a key role in helping to solve problems that impact daily life and long-lasting peace and security.
According to the UN’s website, “The concept of gender mainstreaming was first proposed at the 1985 Third World Conference on Women in Nairobi, Kenya. It was formally featured in 1995 at the Fourth World Conference on Women, in Beijing, China and was cited in the document that resulted from the conference, the Beijing Platform for Action, which stated, ‘In addressing the inequality between men and women in the sharing of power and decision-making at all levels, Governments and other actors should promote an active and visible policy of mainstreaming a gender perspective in all policies and programmes so that before decisions are taken, an analysis is made of the effects on women and men, respectively.’”
A meeting with the Princess of Jordan inspires an idea
The unique “women only” M2M engagement at AFRICOM was the brainchild of Nautilus Nobles, currently a management analyst with AFRICOM J6, who at the time was a program manager when the event was developed. Nobles also serves as a drilling Army Reservist.
"I had an opportunity to meet Princess Aisha bint Al Hussein of Jordan a few years ago where I learned that U.S. Third Army, also known as Army Central (ARCENT), sponsored female M2M events within the Jordanian Armed Forces," said Nobles.
“The program was designed to provide Jordanian female non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and officers an opportunity to exchange doctrine, techniques and philosophies with U.S. Army female NCOs and officers and promote frank discussion on the unique situation faced by women serving in the military.
“It inspired me to create a similar program for AFRICOM. I gleaned the initial framework for the program from the team in Jordan and adapted it for AFRICOM.
“AFRICOM J6 has been conducting these engagements for a while, but this is the first ‘all women’ event. As our African partners increase female enrollment into their military forces, AFRICOM will continue to provide the same opportunities to emerging leaders and provide a venue to address issues facing women in the U.S. and African partner nations militaries,” said Nobles.
African Partner Nations
Eleven women, nine officers and two senior NCOs, represented nine countries – Botswana, Cameroon, Comoros, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Republic of Congo, Togo and Uganda. Most of the women were signal communications officers but the group also included a nurse, an orthopedic doctor and a public affairs senior NCO.
Though the week started off quietly with the gathering of strangers, it quickly developed into animated talks between new friends as each shared her experiences of what it’s like to “be the only woman in a room full of men.”
A taste of “Southern Hospitality”
After a cultural tour of the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta, the group was treated to a dose of Southern hospitality in the home of Nobles’ parents, Julius and Lois Nobles, who live just outside Atlanta.
“This is our third time hosting African military people, and the first time we’ve had ladies here. We look forward to this event and hope to have them back again. You find out what people are about when you have a chance to just share a meal together, ” said Mrs. Nobles
Ft. Gordon - U.S. Army Cyber Center of Excellence
The mission of the U.S. Army Signal Center at Ft. Gordon, near Augusta, Ga., is to develop the U.S. Cyber and Signal Corps Soldiers. A number of military personnel from African partner nations have also trained at Ft. Gordon
The women received briefs about various signal communications courses and a brief on Mercury Fusion, a four day field training exercise that simulates a deployment environment and is required of all Soldiers who train at Ft. Gordon before they can complete their military occupational specialty training.
The visit to Ft. Gordon ended with a demonstration on high-frequency (HF) radio technology.
“HF is the technology most commonly used on the continent of Africa,” said Elizabeth Jordan who works with the AFRICOM J6 Coalition Systems and Interoperability Branch. “This is the communications tool of choice for African partner nations.” Jordan played a key role in the development of the agenda for the group and is also responsible for running “Africa Endeavor” – a communications exercise and senior leaders symposium conducted annually by AFRICOM.
“I am so honored to have been selected to escort these women,” said Lt. Catherine Stokes, an Intel Officer who works on the Operations staff (G3) of the Cyber Center of Excellence at Ft. Gordon. “What a great opportunity to be able to meet and interact with military women from other countries. We all have different reasons for why we chose to join the military and serve our respective countries, but that we chose to serve is what we have in common. It’s my dream to one day have an opportunity to serve in a position that will allow me to work in cooperation with our African partners.” said Stokes.
Military-to-Military at the U.S. Army Women’s Museum, Ft. Lee, VA
The rich history of American women who have served in the U.S. Army is on display at the U.S. Army Women’s Museum at Ft. Lee, Va., about 30 miles south of Richmond. The museum served as the backdrop for a panel discussion between several U.S. senior military women and the women from the African partner nations.
“I am grateful for those women who have served before me. I am standing on their shoulders,” said Command Sergeant Major Ruth E. Potter who serves as the senior enlisted leader of the 71st Transportation Battalion at Fort Lee, Va.
“Now I’m standing tall to open even more doors so those who come next can stand on my shoulders. That’s what we women do, we need to help each other along the way to better serve our country,” said Potter.
Curiosity was high and everyone was eager to learn what was different and what was similar for women in each country’s military.
To promote openness, a non-attribution rule allowed everyone to speak candidly, but in general, the Americans were surprised to learn that in some of the African militaries, a female member might be required to get permission from the highest ranks before she could marry; others were not allowed to go on serving once they decided to start a family. Yet in some countries, women were allowed to serve in direct combat roles, whereas for American women in the military, that is still being debated as assessments are conducted to help leaders determine what policy should prevail.
What all the women had in common was the path each had followed in order to serve her nation in uniform. Some of the younger officers from Africa talked about the challenge of serving in a male-dominated career, while the women who had more time in service acknowledged each had learned the importance of proving their contribution as worthy as their male counterparts by demonstrating the unique value-added they provide as a woman in uniform.
Women’s Peace and Security, the Pentagon
Listening to her younger counterparts, Lt. Col. Augustine Ngali from the Republic of Congo offered advice that when a junior-ranking male chose to not stand at attention for a female officer like he does for a male officer, that it’s best to be assertive and take corrective action. She said that earning respect takes time and determination but women have an obligation to ensure they can be seen as leaders.
“Gender mainstreaming” part of military education
Briefs at the Pentagon shifted the focus to the role of women in achieving peace and security, especially when conflict threatens both.
“My job is to help integrate gender issues into the curriculum at the U.S. military colleges for senior career officers – the Army War College, the Naval Post Graduate School, the Air War College and the National Defense University, “said Beth Lape, an education specialist and instructor with the Joint Staff (J7). “Like anything new, change comes with challenges, and this one being that gender issues are not just women’s issues,” said Lape.
The final day of the program ended with reflections on leadership and what the women had learned from their trip to the U.S.
“I’ve learned that as a leader, it’s better to do right, than to be right,” said Lt. Georgina Asare of Ghana.
“This week has been good in helping us to connect with each other. We are stronger together and knowing there are other women out there who share my experience is very important and helpful to me,” said Maj. Florence Keter of Kenya.
In her closing comments to the African women, Jordan stated, “Our militaries serve a vital role in keeping our nations secure. Sharing best practices allow us to learn from each other and then apply those lessons learned as we strive to improve security for each of our countries.”