Boston College’s Institute for the Liberal Arts welcomed Sakena Yacoobi to campus on Tuesday for an event entitled “Aid Through Action: Reconstructing Education and Health Systems in Afghanistan,” part of a series of lectures that focus on contemporary Afghanistan. In conjunction with professor Kathleen Bailey, the Political Science Department, and the Middle Eastern & Islamic Studies Student Association, the university invited Yacoobi to speak on her experience as an advocate for women, children, and education.
Yacoobi is best known for her work with the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL), a female-led NGO (non-governmental organization) that she founded in 1995 and for which she continues to serve as president and executive director. In addition to seeking education for both boys and girls, the institute provides training for other educators and promoting health education for women and children through its Learning Centers for Afghan Women.
She has also founded the Professor Sakena Yacoobi Private Hospital in Herat, and the Professor Sakena Yacoobi Private High Schools in Kabul and Herat.
Coming to the U.S. in the 1970s, she earned a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences at the University of the Pacific and a master’s degree in public health from Loma Linda University. Among her international awards, Yacoobi has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. In 2013 she also received an honorary Doctorate of Laws from Princeton University and the Opus Prize from Georgetown University.
In her talk, Yacoobi emphasized the role of education in building Afghanistan. She considers education the most important element in raising the standard of living, and uses her 20-year career in Afghanistan and the borderland refugee camps as support. “For 20 years that we have been working with the people, we have found one thing in common,” she said. “Every single parent and every single child loves education. They want to get education, they are starving for education.
“Living under the system that they did for so many years, they saw what ignorance did to them,” Yacoobi said. “They saw what ignorance did to the country. And that’s the reason they are willing to give anything for education.”
Although she founded AIL in 1995, the organization has faced a host of challenges since its inception. Following the Taliban crackdown on girls’ schools in the ’90s, the Afghan Institute of Learning was forced to shut down its center due to security threats. As Yacoobi recalled, “It was very hard because I knew if something happened, the lives of all these women, all these girls were in our hands, so we made the decision to close the center. During the Taliban rule in Afghanistan, if anyone was caught with a book or a teacher teaching in a classroom, that would be the end of that teacher.”
Still, the organization supported approximately 80 underground home schools, thereby helping educate around 3,000 girls. She noted that community involvement was key in protecting the students: “We needed to have a guarantee from the teacher and from the community that they would protect the kids, that they together would support us,” she said. “We must have the support of the community, we must have the participation of the community-otherwise we would not be able to do it.”
Emerging from those more repressive years meant that the need for teachers and educated people was more urgent than ever. “During the war in Afghanistan, we lost nurses, we lost doctors, we lost educated society,” she said. “So during this time, you could imagine what happened to Afghanistan. Definitely, we are lacking teachers. Now, we have about five million children going to school, and we only have 160,000 teachers. You can imagine that this is not enough.”
In order to fill the need, she began an education restructuring. Under Russian and then Taliban influence, the school system emphasized rote memorization over critical thinking. “You would go to school for 12 years, but you wouldn’t learn that much,” Yacoobi said. “When we started in the refugee camps, we wanted to see how we could really change the system of education. That it would be a system that students really learned, not just to memorize things.”
Much of the education is simple. Given the current dearth of health professionals, many programs teach young Afghans how to take care of themselves to prevent illness. Expectant mother classes pass this information onto mothers in a nation that consistently ranks among the highest in infant mortality and, most progressively, reproductive health classes help married women understand how to limit the number of children they bear.
In addition, with this new restructuring, Yacoobi saw drastic improvement in attendance. “It didn’t make a difference if there was a classroom or not,” she recalled. “It didn’t make a difference if there were books or not. It didn’t make a difference if there was a uniform or not. They come and sit on the grass, they come sit under the tent, they come sit on the bare floor, and learn. That was the first step.”
For young people with few resources, this type of education proves particularly helpful. Yacoobi discussed programs implemented among street children and in orphanages, which teach the students practical skills as well as critical thinking and study. “Looking at these children, we know they won’t become Talibs,” she said. “That’s what education can do for you.”
After 20 years, she shows no signs of slowing down. She acknowledged that people ask her increasingly about her age and safety in a volatile Afghanistan, when she could easily live out her life in the U.S., and shared her response: “We all are human beings,” Yacoobi said. “I won’t let the child die, let the woman die, because I want to have a more comfortable life. It’s very hard. I love my country.
“That’s the reason we concentrate in education,” she added. “When you work in education, you find that it works toward a solution.”