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NEWS | March 10, 2022

U.S. servicewomen forge women’s empowerment in Agadez

By Tech. Sgt. Stephanie Longoria 435th Air Expeditionary Wing

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, eight women from the Air Base 201 Women’s Association were greeted by the 20 warm smiles of the Tedhilt Women’s Association in Agadez, Niger, March 6, 2022. Together, the women unloaded their vehicles of water, rice, pasta and American snacks in preparation to celebrate International Women’s Day.

International Women’s Day (March 8) is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. It also raises awareness against bias and accelerates gender equality.

Each year International Women’s Day has a campaign theme; this year's theme is ‘Time to break the bias.’ The theme illustrates a world in which genders are equal, free of bias, stereotypes and discriminations. A world that is diverse, equitable and inclusive, where differences are valued and celebrated.

“We are here to celebrate women and their drive to empower and support themselves,” said Spc. Mary Leszczuk, 404th Civil Affairs Battalion airborne specialist. “We want to spend the day getting to know the women in the region and how they are working towards breaking [gender] bias.”

Not only did the women celebrate International Women’s Day and learn about its history, they also took the time to strengthen their relationship with one another, and learn about each other’s day-to-day life.

Through a panel discussion over lunch, the women discussed their perspectives on leadership and gender. The Tedhilt Women’s Association also asked the female U.S. service members about the military and their experiences.

“We are really happy that women can now serve in the military, it wasn't allowed in this country but more and more are joining,” said a Tedhilt Women’s Association member. “We think it's a good thing that all of you are in the military and can provide for your families.”

During the panel discussion the women explained how Nigerien culture is changing and society is empowering women. The culture has become more accepting of women holding male dominated jobs and encouraging them to go to school.

“I think they look at us and they see positivity, possibility and a way forward,” said Maj. Maribel Seegmiller, 724 Expeditionary Air Base Squadron director of operations.  

In order to be part of the evolving culture, the Tedhilt Women’s Association offers a two-year program which teaches women how to use a sewing machine and turn the new learned skill into a business, in hopes to become financially secure.

“This is an opportunity for us to learn a new skill and provide for our family too,” said a Tedhilt Women’s Association member. “We can now have dreams and know the possibility of having something in the future.”

The AB201 Women’s Association were eager to support the Tedhilt Women’s Association.

“The goal of AB201 and the women’s association organization is to empower the women of Agadez through physical, emotional and psychological support,” said Leszczuk. “We want to show appreciation to all organizations, like Tedhilt, that encourage women to learn a trade previously reserved for only men.”

In support of their newly learned trade skills, members from the AB201 Women’s Association purchased handmade scarfs, ceramic sculptures, henna tattoos and dresses totaling approximately 250,000 West African CFA francs ($420 USD).

“I could tell how important it was for the women to show us their stuff,” said Airmen 1st Class Katrice Rojas, 724th EABS commander's support staff.  “Learning how to sew is a way they can better themselves, their community and family…and how to start working towards their future goals.”

The U.S. remains deeply invested in partnership with the Government of Niger. Events like these build relationships based on shared experiences and new cultural perspectives. For some, it was an experience that left a lasting impact.  

“This was a really great experience for me,” said Staff Sgt. Joielle Cobb-Sanders, 409th Air Expeditionary Group personnel support for contingency operations specialist. “We sat, broke bread and talked.  I’ve never experienced anything like that…this is something I will always remember!”