It’s good to have heroes. One of mine is Sakena Yacoobi, the founder of a terrific organization called the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) that provides education and health services to women across Afghanistan. I first met Sakena nearly a decade ago, and have followed her work closely since then. I’ve visited several of AIL’s programs in Afghanistan and wrote about her and her work in my book Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East.
Sakena is in New York this week to receive the Asia Foundation’s second annual Lotus Leadership Award; en route to New York, she also received an honorary award from the World’s Children’s Prize Foundation, a nonprofit in Sweden. Not surprisingly, she’s received tons of awards over the years for her work in Afghanistan with marginalized Afghan women.
Taught to read as a child by her local mullah in western Afghanistan, Sakena remarkably (read my book for all the details) went on to earn a master’s degree in public health in the United States. In the 1990s, she started the Afghan Institute of Learning, mostly serving Afghan refugees in Pakistan, but also secretly operating girls’ schools in Kabul during the Taliban years. After the Taliban were toppled in 2001, AIL quickly expanded its programs, establishing multiple women’s centers across the country. Its reach today is impressive: since 1996, AIL-trained teachers have taught 4.6 million people, and more than a million Afghan women and their children have received its health services. In 2011 alone, the organization treated over 185,000 people (70 percent of them women). Over nine million Afghans—a third of the population—have been touched by AIL programs. Sakena manages all of this on a shoe-string budget of less than $2 million a year, using local resources and local salaries.
AIL’s work deserves at least a bit of the credit for Afghanistan’s significantly improved health and educational outcomes in recent years, particularly for women. Under the Taliban, virtually no girls were enrolled in school (except for underground schools like the ones that Sakena ran), but today about 2.7 million girls attend school. There are now also strong levels of popular support for women’s education in Afghanistan. According to the Asia Foundation’s 2011 Survey of the Afghan People, 85 percent of Afghans agreed with the statement that “Women should have equal opportunities like men in education.” Nearly two-thirds of Afghans believe that women should be allowed to work outside of their homes. Maternal mortality has declined, albeit from medieval levels, and infant and child mortality have also come down significantly. Sakena sees the improvements in her clinics: “A decade ago, women and children came in covered in skin diseases and suffering from severe malnutrition, but today they generally look much better,” she told me this week. AIL emphasizes health education and awareness of important life skills with the women it sees.
Understandably, Sakena is worried about what the future holds as the international community reduces its presence in Afghanistan. She insists that if the Taliban attempts to take over the country and reverse the progress that women have made, Afghan women will “flood into the streets in protest.” She also dismisses talk that a “gentler” Taliban might emerge with a less harsh approach towards women. Last year, for example, Farook Wardak, the Afghan minister of education, stated in a BBC interview that he had been hearing “at the very upper policy level of the Taliban” that they would no longer oppose girls’ education. Sakena–pointing to recent Taliban attacks on girls’ schools–questions how Afghan women can ever trust the Taliban. In addition to girls’ education, she worries about the fragile gains women have made politically. She speculates (as others have) that if peace talks between the Taliban and the national government go forward, gains like the quota reserving a quarter of the seats in parliament for women could be on the chopping block during negotiations. “[Women] want to keep the constitution. We are proud of it,” she says.
With her usual indomitable courage, Sakena says to me: “I’m not scared to be dead, but I’m scared for the [future of] my programs.” She hopes that as international troops depart Afghanistan, the international community will remain engaged with organizations like hers that are working at the grassroots level to educate the next generation and open their minds to new ways to thinking. That may be the best hope for Afghanistan in the years to come.