The Power of Education: Sakena Yacoobi’s Hopes for the Women of Afghanistan

By Nina Carduner

Photo credit: Rodrigo Valenzuela

Dr. Sakena Yacoobi, founder of the Afghan Institute of Learning, opened this year’s Global Washington conference with an impassioned retelling of her experiences working to bring education to the women and children of Afghanistan.

She described her own childhood in Afghanistan as happy and secure. They were poor, she said, but able to sufficiently provide for what they needed in their own country. She described a life where women and children could freely go from place to place, visiting neighbors and celebrating various holidays with other families. But now, the people of Afghanistan have been traumatized by forty years of war.

While completing her education in the US, she had supportive teachers, the ability to ask questions, and freedom of speech. But when the Shah invaded, she could not return home and her family became refugees. Still, she explained, her heart never left Afghanistan and she began a career in public health, remembering how few resources there were for maternal and child health was when she was growing up.

On a trip to an Afghan refugee camp, she was shocked by what she witnessed. She met women who had lost everything: their fathers, husbands, and brothers. They were left helpless and completely unable to do anything for themselves. “They were like animals. They felt less than human,” she explained. That’s when she realized that education was the solution to helping these women.

At that time, many Afghan refugee camps were in Pakistan, and she began going camp-to-camp to offer education. Many of the mullahs in the camps believed that education was not good for children, but over time, she convinced the mullahs to became teachers. In one year, the number of students she reached went from 300 to 27,000. Education in the camps was not just a critical need, but a clear desire for the refugees. But this presented a new problem, she went on. When children are traumatized by war, have never been educated before, and are mixed with other children of all ages, it can be very difficult to motivate them to come to school. She created a curriculum that would challenge these children and emphasize critical thinking skills.

When the Taliban took over Afghanistan, schools were closed and women could no longer go out freely by themselves. Dr. Yacoobi knew she had to do something to bring her curriculum to the children of Afghanistan, but understood the risk and danger she was bringing on herself and colleagues. Through various creative methods, they were able to secretly open 80 underground schools. They also risked their lives to set up a mobile library traveling from school to school, hiding the books in sacks of flour and rice with three men acting as male relatives. Every time they traveled with the mobile library, she didn’t fear death but feared getting caught by the Taliban would mean the end of the entire program. Each class was only supposed to support 35 students, but they attracted over 75 students to every class. It was clear that Afghans would risk certain danger to educate themselves and their children.

Today, her schools teach over 3,000 students in rural Afghanistan and have reached 10 million people with a variety of health services, in addition to education. Their teachers receive training, materials, and salaries. The children her organization has educated have now grown up and can be seen in all levels of Afghani society. When people ask Dr. Yacoobi how she has done this work for the last twenty years, she always responds, “I love my country. I love my people . . . the Prophet told us in the Qur’an that women and men can learn side by side and they can be anything they want to be.” The women who benefited from her programs are also more empowered today because they aren’t just seeking basic education; they are also pursuing higher education. She continued, “the women of Afghanistan are not the same women they were five years ago. They have been oppressed for forty years, and now with education, they will not accept the treatment they experienced in the past. When children have mothers who are no longer helpless, they will succeed.”

Dr. Yacoobi closed, “if the tank and the gun didn’t solve our problem, I am 100% sure that the women of Afghanistan will.”