Sakena Yacoobi is the founder and director of the Afghan Institute of Learning, a social venture in Afghanistan, which aims to bring education to women and girls. Operating since 1995, the organization has served over 7.1 million Afghans. Yacoobi has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship and the Gleitsman International Activist Award. I spoke with her at the 2010 Skoll Word Forum on her work and its impact.
Thanks for sitting down with us. How did AIL get started?
When I was completing my education in the US, I really wanted to go back to Afghanistan because I believed that women had been abused and repressed. During the Russian occupation, people did not go to school — the majority was prevented from getting and education. I wanted to see how women could get an education.
When I went to the refugee camps, I saw that we don’t have a lot of educated women. Those that had been educated had left for America or Europe. Most of the women I met couldn’t read or write. I believed education could empower and transform them. Women in the camps were also very submissive. When I asked them a direct question they were shy to answer.
I felt that if you provide a quality education for a long time, you make a big change. In a matter of six months or a year of educational assistance, you won’t see a lot of change — you can’t learn to read or write in six months. It’s a longer-term education that builds their confidence.
We decided the best way to start was teacher training. When you have a good teacher, and with the new, participatory methodology we developed, it has a real impact. The curriculum we used was so effective.
When your organization was getting underway, the Taliban were ascendant in Afghanistan. What were the biggest challenges in those times?
That we were operating underground. The teacher trainers had to travel quietly from Pakistan to Afghanistan and back. Also if the teachers were found out, they would be killed and the children they were teaching would be in danger. Also, the schools we were operating were all being run out of people’s homes.
After the war in 2002, did you feel a lot of feedback from the girls or women you were working with on the effectiveness of international aid?
I have not yet had any support from any donor government. I saw money coming in, but not really toward developing civil society. In fact, it has created a problem for our society. It provided local employees with very high salaries and other things. We lost a lot of a young generation who were all trying to get these jobs. These young people have become the head of the household because of their income, creating social problems and imbalance. A son, about your age, will totally ignore the traditional family considerations or parental counsel.
We need development of civil society and infrastructure. We need skilled training for doctors, lawyers, and engineers. You can’t count on just computer skills to bring development. If aid were spent more carefully with better planning, it would have a great impact in our society. We still haven’t seen more roads or electricity. So many people are still unemployed, and women are still hurting.
The difference in the lives of the women involved in our program is not my doing — I do what they tell me they want to do. They want to get education for themselves and their children. For example, if I want to open more centers, we have expanded by starting schools, which were then run independently. We make sure that different groups from across Afghanistan are included.
How did you address gender issues?
Through workshops, we began to work on gender issues. The women we were working with started asking us “Why aren’t you working with men? They are the ones who need to be engaged with.” And so we did. We’re really working to address gender issues.
I saw a video of a man working with AIL, crying at the forced closure of his girl’s school; it was remarkable. Your reaction?
There are so many stereotypes about men in Afghanistan, that they are all bad. When you educate them that women are equal to men, including in Islam, they support it. I have hundreds of men like that principal working with me. Those men are open-minded, and they have vision. My father is another example: he was supportive of my going to school abroad. Pretty soon, inshallah, we will be able to reopen that center.
What are your reactions to receiving a Skoll Award? What do you feel the impacts have been on AIL?
Well you know, one thing I really appreciate about the award is that it is not given to just anyone. The application process, the paperwork is very difficult. They really want to find organizations that are doing good work. Since the award, my organization and I have gotten a lot of recognition. We’re still very short of funds, but the people who are interested in the program are good people looking to get involved in our work.
What would you say from your experience with Afghan women?
The women of Afghanistan are courageous. I feel a responsibility to let the world know how hard they work, how hard is the environment they live in, and how much they appreciate assistance from other parts of the world. Also how important it is for these women to have other people in the world back them and support them to ensure they have a better, sustainable life. We are providing income generation for women. They not only come to learn to read or write, but also skills: carpet weaving, beautician training, and computer skills. It’s changing their whole family life.
Is there a symbolic example of the impact of AIL and a girl’s or woman’s education?
I have a hundred stories to tell you. One is definitely of interest; we started a girl’s high school in Peshawar. One of the girls at this school went on to become a doctor, and now she works in one of our clinics. It’s not only that our program changed Nejiba’s life, or that she paid to put her husband through school. She is having her in-laws in a village donate some of their land to create a women’s center there. This is a model to show how much our program can affect the lives of people. She is a doctor, providing a service, and it’s fantastic news to see how education is really affecting people’s lives. I have many students who are like that. They go to our university in Pakistan, and they come back to Afghanistan to work for us or make positive impacts in the Afghan government. They come out of it highly qualified.
Is there anything you want the American Muslim community to know, or observers generally?
I would like American or European people to not miscalculate the value of Afghan women. Our country’s security is the biggest, toughest issue in Afghanistan. If our security is being provided for our women, you can see them building their capacity and doing so much for Afghanistan. They are smart, intelligent, and very powerful. Don’t leave us alone; support and help us to build our support.
(Photo: William Vazquez, Photographer, Maternal Health Initiative supported through a grant from the Abbott Fund)
Abbas Jaffer is Contributing Editor to Altmuslimah