Sakena Yacoobi — Fighting for Education Amidst Violence
It's a war zone right now in Afghanistan, every day there is bombing... But I think I've reached to the point that I am no longer afraid. I have a strong belief in God, he is protecting me, so I keep going.
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Born in Herat, Afghanistan, Sakena came to the United States in the 1970s, earning a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences from the University of the Pacific and a master’s degree in public health from Loma Linda University. Before returning in 1990 to work with her people, Sakena was a professor at D’Etre University and a health consultant. While working with refugees in Pakistan, she published eight Dari-language teacher training guides. During that time, she also served as the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR) delegate working on the education portion of the United Nation’s Rehabilitation Plan for Afghanistan.
Using their grassroots strategies and holistic approach, AIL now serves 350,000 women and children each year through its training programs, Educational Learning Centers, schools and clinics in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Since 1996, over 7,700,000 Afghans have benefited from AIL’s education and health programs.
Sakena Yacoobi is also co-founder and Vice President of Creating Hope International, a Michigan-based non-profit organization. She is a member of the Board of Directors of Global Fund for Women. She is an advisor to the Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation. She is advisor to Women’s Learning Partnership (WLP) and a member of WLP’s Roaming Institute for Women’s Leadership. She is a member and past steering committee member of the Agency Co-ordinating Body for Afghan Relief.
In addition to her work with AIL, Sakena has been a panelist and speaker on education for women and children at a number of international conferences, including the Clinton Global Initiative, California Governor’s Conference on Women and Families, the Central Eurasian Studies Society conference at Harvard University, the One World Forum at Warwick University in England, Association for Women in Development in Bangkok, and the International Institute for Peace Education in South Korea, Turkey, Greece and Costa Rica. She has been instrumental in focusing attention on the urgent need for women’s rights and education and healthcare in Afghanistan.
Sakena and AIL have received international recognition for their efforts on behalf of Afghan women and children. In 2001, Sakena was awarded the Bill Graham award from the Rex Foundation in recognition of the efforts of the Afghan Institute of Learning to assist children who are victims of political oppression and human rights violations. AIL and Dr. Yacoobi are co-recipients of the 2003 Peacemakers in Action Award of the Tanenbaum Center for Inter-religious Understanding and the 2004 Women’s Rights Prize of the Peter Gruber Foundation. Sakena and AIL have received recognition of service awards from the Ministry of Education in Herat, Afghanistan, the district governments of Mir Bacha Kot, Shakardara, Kalakan, Farza, and sixth district Kabul Afghanistan and from numerous Afghan organizations. In 2005, Professor Yacoobi was awarded the Democracy Award from the National Endowment for Democracy. Sakena was among the 1,000 women nominated to jointly receive the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize. In 2006, Sakena received the Citizen Leader Award from the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California and the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship. In January 2007, Sakena was inducted as a Senior Fellow, the first Ashoka Fellow from Afghanistan. In May 2007, Sakena was awarded an honorary doctorate of laws by the University of the Pacific for her leadership and human rights work for women and children. In December 2007, Sakena received the 2007 Gleitsman International Activist Award at Harvard University. In June 2008, Sakena received an honorary Doctor of Humanitarian Service degree from Loma Linda University, recognizing her distinguished contribution to society. In February 2009, Sakena received the 2009 Americans for UNFPA Board of Advocates Award for the Health and Dignity of Women. Sakena was cited by Americans for UNPFA as a tireless advocate for Afghan women, who has increased the literacy and improved the health of thousands of Afghan women and girls despite decades of armed conflict and a ban on girls education during Taliban rule. In March 2009, Sakena received the Henry R. Kravis Prize in Leadership for her outstanding work. In 2010, Sakena received the Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights, and the Asia Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award given by the Schwab Foundation. Yacoobi was one of the 1000 women worldwide who was collectively nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. She was elected as an Ashoka Fellow in 2006, recognizing her leading work as a social entrepreneur. In 2007, Yacoobi received the Gleitsman International Activist Award from the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard's JFK School of Government. Yacoobi received the Gruber Prize for Women’s Rights in 2004 and the Democracy Award from the National Endowment for Democracy in 2005. She has also received a 2006 Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship.
Unlocking the Potential of Women
Afghanistan, for about 35 years has been at war, and through this war situation, the women have been abused and violated against all the time, and also a major part of the society ignored the part of the woman... if you ignore 60% of society, you are not getting anywhere.
Women have the capacity if you really give them the environment, if you really work with them and give them opportunity, they will blossom and they will nourish and they will be able to provide so much for the nation that the nation will go through transformation.
So in order to really build this nation, we must work with woman and children, and that's we're doing. And through working with women and educating them, we have been reach, like, about 9 million people so far in my 15 years. 9 million people when we reach, right now all of a sudden we see the transformation is taking place. Women are more empowered. They go to the task force, they go to the political arena, and they are working toward democracy. They understand. Before, they didn't understand what we're trying to ask them what to do, and in order for them to understand, we must educate them and give them awareness. And through many, many workshop, like leadership workshop, management workshop, peace education, we help the woman to help themself.
Through this process of educating young woman and young girls, I have seen many, many lives have been changed, their style of life change, they become very powerful. They become self-sufficient.
Education as a Path to Peace
I really believe it strongly that education is the key issue, that it will bring peace to Afghanistan, because when people are ignorance, they are fighting, they want to really fight with weapon, and for 30 years we didn't accomplish anything. And day-by-day violence is getting worse and worse.
Society ideally believes that we are all human and we are equal, and you look to others as equal and really try to watch for humans rights, women's rights... the right of every individual to have the dignity, to have respect, and when we abuse and don't look for gender equality we discourage people from their right, we discourage people from their value and their ethics, they feel low. And that is not the way to you look to for other human being.
Again you go back again to education. The more education people have, the better they could understand that they don't do something to others that they don't want to be done to them.
It’s a right of every child to be educated and from the time of Taliban, many, many children have not been in a school and today we have girls that like 15, 20 years old, they don't know how to read and write, even boys, the same thing. So what we are trying to do, we are trying to constantly work in education because if we accomplish education, that all over Afghanistan education is spread, then I think that our problem and war problem will be solved also because then people have a better understanding about equality, about justice, about right, and they are not going to abuse that.
the Transformative Power of Education - a Story
It is so important to see that people are transforming and people are changing. It’s give me pleasure because when a woman come to my door begging for money and she had 5 children with her and all the children were in the street, and I said, “I am not humanitarian to give you money. The only thing I can provide for you education.” And she said “No, I really want to you help me.”
We said, “Okay, you can work for us as a cook, but you have on one condition, you have to let your children to go to a school.” She said, “No, my children are a breadwinner for me. They are begging in the streets and bringing money for me. I cannot put them in the school.” I said, “Then I could not help you. The only way I could do, I give you a job as a cook but you put your children in the school.”
So we convince her. She did, and what do you know, today her daughter went to my school, finished high school, become a nurse, work as a nurse in my own hospital, and then she went back to medical school, she become a doctor. She is now a doctor. And she took her mother out of the cleaning and cooking, she's supporting completely her mother and still she's working in my program as a doctor. This is something that you see the whole entire family life changed. She is supporting her sister and brother to a school. They are all going to a school.
So for me, this is a power of education. Education change my life, and I feel that education changing everybody's life. There are many, many examples that many young woman are right now blossoming, they are they are holding huge job, and they are so proud of it.
Education is like a light, leading people to a better life.
God's Peace in the Face of Danger
There are many, many challenges in Afghanistan. One of the challenge is security. Security is really always stop us, because there are many, many villages, many, many city in the rural area that we want to go and really empower woman, but because of security we are not able to go.
It's a war zone right now in Afghanistan, every day there is bombing, there is explosion, so if you want to go to the work, if you want to go to the field, always you have to be very careful where are you going or how are you going because always somebody is looking for you.
But I think I've reached to the point that I am no longer afraid. I feel that it doesn't serve my purpose if I am afraid. I have a strong belief in God, I really believe God is protecting me, so I keep doing, and also, I believe in goodness. When you provide a good service, quality service for people, I don't see why I should be in trouble.