Civic Engagement

Afghanistan: Update from Sakena Yacoobi

Afghan Institute of Learning Founder Sakena Yacoobi helps women and children through teacher training and health education.

No one has done more for Afghan women and children than Sakena Yacoobi. “Lessons in Courage,” was the title of a spring 2010 article SSIR ran about Yacoobi, and her continuing courage in the face of increasing violence in Afghanistan remains almost impossible to imagine.

Sakena Yacoobi, founder and executive director of the Afghan Institute of Learning.  (Photo courtesy of Two Parrot Productions)

I was very fortunate to be able to spend time with Yacoobi last month at the Opportunity Collaboration, a convening on global poverty alleviation held in Mexico. She caught me up on the current situation in Afghanistan and her work at the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL). Yacoobi founded AIL in 1995 to provide teacher training to Afghan women, support education for boys and girls, and offer health education to women and children. About 200,000 students graduate every year from AIL’s programs, and Yacoobi estimates AIL has impacted 8.5 million Afghans. Yacoobi is the recipient of dozens of humanitarian, social entrepreneurship, and leadership awards for her incredible work over the last two decades.

The day Yacoobi and I met, it was a humid 90 degrees, but Yacoobi was wearing a hijab and a long, beautifully embroidered dark Afghan dress. She lit up with passion when talking about the progress being made and the hope of rebuilding Afghanistan. In every word she spoke, she was tireless and unwavering in her commitment to the people of Afghanistan. But at the same time, she seemed weary. She travels the world about 40 percent of her time, stop after stop, building support for AIL and change in Afghanistan. At home in Afghanistan, she works every day to make life better while surrounded by violence and uncertainty. Rebuilding Afghanistan is her life’s pursuit.

Yacoobi focused in on the improvements she’s seen over the last two years, her workshops for youth to engage them in civil society, and renewing her people’s connection to the earth.

“Women’s lives are changing rapidly for the good,” she said. “It’s changed 180 degrees. Women are going into professions of all kinds. But the women of Afghanistan still need the international community to back them up. It takes awhile—Afghanistan has been at war 30 years. Everything cannot be changed right away.”

“Afghanistan is doing better, the villages are cleaner, people are healthier, and people know more about hygiene and reproductive health. Now we need infrastructure support, and we need to develop our civil society.” On the other hand, she added, “security is worse this year than last year. I have to just ignore the whole thing as otherwise I couldn’t function.”

Yacoobi has been holding workshops on democracy, leadership, and peace, getting youth involved in civil society. “A highlight of my life is my emerging youth group,” Yacoobi told me. She recently took 25 students, ages 18-25, to a peace conference in India. Now the group meets once a month for discussions. Each student was asked to bring two others, and the group has swelled to over 200.

Yacoobi also spoke about wanting to work with young people to bring back the connection between the Afghan people and nature. “I feel strongly that we are living too separate from nature; we are disconnected from the soil.” Yacoobi said. “The soil has been so abused, by landmines, suicide bombers, and many things. The dirt is dead.” She cited the important teaching of 13th century poet Rumi, who wrote of this connection and the importance of “love, tolerance, wisdom, respect, and forgiveness.”

Yacoobi is tired of concentrating on the negative. “I love Afghanistan. I love the women and children of Afghanistan. I work with civil society, and I am not interested in politics. Afghanistan is still insecure; we still have war. But the best thing for me is to concentrate and continue with what I am doing.”

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  • BY California Moderate

    ON November 13, 2011 07:54 AM

    Regarding the deteriorating security situation, Ms. Yacoobi has to “ignore the whole thing” to function. That’s about as telling as it can get. It would be wonderful to provide whatever support she needs, but of course we cannot. Her goals for Afghanistan are (or should be) our goals. Unfortunately, the conduct of that war was so badly mismanaged for so long that domestic policy (war weariness) and fiscal pressure (debt) here in the U.S. make the likely end game pretty clear. We will walk away, the Afghan economy will collapse, the Taliban will return to power and women there will be forced back into the dark ages. There is no question that the Afghan economy, already feeble, will collapse. My understanding is that about 98% of all Afghan economic activity flows from foreign military spending. If that is true, the Afghan economy will not withstand that kind of shock when foreign military forces leave the country. No economy could take that kind of hit and survive.

    Of course, I fervently hope that my view turns out to be wrong, but am afraid that it is about right. The only thing I can think of that might deny that black future for Afghanistan is some sort of Arab Spring phenomenon that somehow blunts or denies the bad outcome. If that is the case, then maybe the best legacy we can leave is to put our remaining money into building a tough (hard to destroy/easy to defend) infrastructure to support the kind of communications channels needed for people to organize against violent oppression. Violent oppression is what the Taliban will deliver when they return to power.

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