Sakena Yacoobi is on a mission. Her goal is to bring education to Afghanistan, a country that has a 70 percent illiteracy rate. Her main focus is girls and women. She believes education can ameliorate the ravages of 35 years--and counting--of war. She speaks with an urgency that emanates from that core conviction. To "build a better future for Afghanistan," she founded the Afghan Institute of Learning in 1995. "Empowerment" is the key word in all of her NGO's literature.
Yacoobi, who serves as the chief executive of A.I.L., was one of 1,000 women to be nominated as a joint recipient of the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize. She is featured in Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl DuWunn's new book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunities for Women Worldwide.
Managed by women, A.I.L. has served 6.7 million Afghans. It is one of the largest employers of Afghan women, providing health care, education, and training based on the philosophy that "educated people, especially educated women and girls, are the key to a peaceful and prosperous future of Afghanistan." Its American project partner is Creating Hope International.
When Yacoobi sat down to speak with me at this year's Omega Women and Power Conference, I got a primer on subjects ranging from the history of Afghanistan to the strength and resilience of Afghan women. Her succinct outline of factors contributing to the critical situation in her country included a government that is corrupted, negligible services, and lack of security. Every morning, she said, people question whether they will return home or if they will be blown up.
Yacoobi sees how the despair of poverty and hunger can foster terrorism. She believes that when you create jobs and self-sufficiency, people get involved in rebuilding their society. "It's a chaotic situation," she said, qualifying the volatile environment of rocket shellings and kidnappings, family breakdown, and the drug trade. A reported 10 to 15 million unexploded land mines are still inside Afghanistan, a territory the size of Texas. This puts Afghanistan at the top of the global landmine casualty list.
Yacoobi sees education as the portal to rebuilding her country. In the mid-1990s, she created and implemented a network of 80 underground home schools after the Taliban outlawed education for girls. Currently, in her classes, she presents the state-sanctioned curriculum, but it co-exists alongside her formatted instruction on "health, peace, democracy, leadership, and being a good citizen." A.I.L. has trained over 16,000 teachers (70 percent of them women), provided leadership, administrative and human rights training to 5800 Afghans (80 percent of them women), and health training to 6,400 women. Carpet weaving, embroidery, knitting, tailoring, and beauty shop management are also taught as vocational skills. "Women's Learning Centers," English classes, computer instruction, university classes, and support for grassroots education centers are all part of the plan.
Her health program is ambitious and essential. There is no money for doctors or medicine, and people wait until their situation is critical before they seek attention. Yacoobi has five clinics operating inside of Afghanistan, a country with the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world according to the United Nations. Children die at a very young age, as they are born with existing ailments. To fight this, A.I.L. provides services through clinics that are both stationary and mobile--as transportation is an ongoing obstacle. In addition to dealing with basics, the program offers outreach on HIV/AIDS education, nutrition for children, and dental care.
A strong conviction about the innate intelligence of Afghan women underpins Yacoobi's philosophy. She explained how women have always had the power in the household through managing the money and handling the children. "The problem," she told me, "is that the Western world doesn't see that." Yacoobi talked about a traditional Muslin culture of Afghanistan that is "thousands of years old." Afghan women "wear hijab because they want to," she stated. "Yes, there was a time during the Taliban that they had to wear [it], but now if they don't want to, they don't have to wear it." When those outside of Afghanistan see the garb as oppressive and "want to teach us human rights, when they want to teach us democracy, when they want to teach us all these things, [it is] according to Western culture. And that is not right."
Yocoobi frames Afghan women's call for equality through the precepts and teaching of the Koran. "Here in the Koran it says you don't abuse women, you don't beat women," she said, expressing her commitment to work within the tenets of Afghan culture and practices to transform the society into an "advanced civilization."
Yacoobi has hopes that President Obama will have an understanding about the vital need for national infrastructure. "I try to do the best I can," she said of her efforts, suggesting modestly that she was a small person in the global scheme of things.
With her drumbeat for education, health services, and vocational training, her work through A.I.L. constitutes an independent front of pro-active solutions. The powers that be would do well to hear it.
This article originally appeared on the Women's Media Center website.
Follow Marcia G. Yerman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mgyerman