Despite some progress since the Taliban was ousted in 2002, the lives of most Afghan women remain difficult, even desperate. Many are illiterate, very poor, and lack even basic medical services. Their personal rights and freedoms remain in question: In the last eight months, Taliban militants in Kandahar have attacked schoolgirls with acid, and assassinated the female police chief and a prominent women’s rights leader. A new law signed by President Hamid Karzai would legalize child marriage among the Shi’ite minority, and restrict Shi’ite women from working or going to school without a husband’s permission.
It is a situation that would daunt most, but for the last 17 years, an Afghan-raised woman named Sakena Yacoobi has been quietly fighting all those ills - bringing education, health care, and the idea of women’s equality to thousands of Afghan women, men and children.
In 1992, Yacoobi had made a comfortable life as an immigrant in the United States, teaching at a college in Michigan. But she missed her country, and wanted to help other Afghans exiled, like her, by decades of war. Visiting Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, she met women and girls who had nothing, not even have the freedom to walk outside the family compound.
“Women were sick, women were exhausted, women were depressed,” Yacoobi said in an interview during a recent trip to the U.S. “They didn’t have education, and they were all cooped up in a camp area inside the tent. And when I went and visited them, I felt this is the area that I really want to work in."
Yacoobi founded the Afghan Institute of Learning soon after, working in the refugee camps in Pakistan at first, and later inside Afghanistan. In the seven years since the Taliban was ousted, her organization has supported 150 grassroots learning and health centers across the country. In schoolrooms and clinics, teachers and doctors are trained, women learn job skills, and children are taught to read and write. And basic health services are no longer out of reach for some women and children.
“In Afghanistan, the women and children are suffering the most,” Yacoobi said. “When I was a child, I saw the suffering of women in Afghanistan. Every woman who was going to deliver a baby, out of ten women, five of them die, because there wasn't a facility for them. There wasn't doctor. There wasn't medicine.”
As much as from lack of medical care, she saw that Afghan women suffered from lack of education. Those who had grown up in the camps had never even learned to read and write. To Yacoobi, women’s education is the key to Afghanistan’s development. “When you educate the woman, you really educate the family, and when you educate the family, you educate the nation,” she said. “And when you educate the nation, you build the economy, you build the status of health, and you build the country.”
Yacoobi risked her life in the mid-1990's when she set up and ran a network of 80 underground home schools in Afghanistan after the Taliban banned female education. Like other advocates of women’s rights and education, she lives with the threat of terror by Taliban militants. Yacoobi says that her organization tries to minimize that risk by staying out of areas where the Taliban is most active. A.I.L also works to foster participation by the entire community in the local health care and learning centers that it sponsors. And it preempts objections to its work by including men in classes that discuss the Koran's teachings on women.
“We give workshops in leadership and we have men and women sitting side by side,” Yacoobi said. “And when we have a quotation from Koran that says that women are equal to men, and men and women are created by God equally, which religious leader could say anything? They are silent, and they learn. And they change."
At a dinner in New York recently, Yacoobi was awarded the fourth annual Henry R. Kravis Prize in Leadership, given with Claremont McKenna College. The award grants her $250,000 to be used for her work. She accepted it “in the name of all the courageous women of Afghanistan,” whom she said are ready to lead their country, if they are given the education and rights to do so.
Yacoobi headed back to her work in Afghanistan later that week, returning as well to the danger she rarely mentions. She is protected by bodyguards, and long ago moved her family to the U.S. for their safety.