Leading up to the International Day of the Girl on October 11, Intel and 10x10act.org will be celebrating the heroes making a real difference in girls’ education around the world.
Dr. Sakena Yacoobi has spent most of her adult life helping Afghan girls and women rise up through poverty and the cultural disadvantages brought on by political conflict. Through her Afghanistan Institute of Learning (AIL), she has given millions of girls an education and healthier lives despite overwhelming patriarchal oppression, especially during the Taliban years.
It may come as a bit of a surprise to learn that Yacoobi’s role model was a dearly beloved man. “My role model was my father,” Yacoobi says proudly. “At the time I was growing up [in Herat, Afghanistan], my father was very advanced. He was not educated: he couldn’t read or write, but he was a successful businessman. He worked very hard, and he always encouraged me to go to school.” At a time when girls were told to drop out of school and marry young, Yacoobi’s father supported his daughter through school and even sent her to the United States so she could attend college at the University of the Pacific in the 1970s. “That was very unusual—nobody came to America as an undergraduate. I dedicate my entire life to him.”
Yacoobi, who eventually received a master’s degree in public health from Loma Linda University, taught as a professor in Michigan and worked as a health consultant for a few years before moving to Pakistan to work with refugees in the early 1990s. After witnessing the desperate plight of hundreds of uneducated and unhealthy young women who were fleeing the Taliban of Yacoobi’s homeland, she decided to return to Afghanistan. “I wanted to do something for my people,” says Yacoobi, who was raised as Muslim. “When I came to Pakistan and when I saw all these beautiful young women who were hopeless, I quit my job and started the Afghanistan Learning Institute.”
At this time, the Taliban had forbidden girls’ education, so for years, Yacoobi operated her schools in secrecy—and under great threat of beatings, torture, and death. Word spread quickly, and by 2001, 3,000 girls were quietly studying in eight underground home schools in four Afghanistan cities.
Today, the impact of Yacoobi’s women-run, non-governmental organization is extraordinary. After the Taliban’s fall, AIL has grown stronger and more prolific, educating disadvantaged people from preschool through university level; all the while guiding the communities in the importance of education (for girls and boys) and health, and providing disaster relief. Since 1996, AIL has impacted over 9 million people, taught 275,298 students, and trained over 19,000 teachers. There are currently 326 AIL centers and 15 AIL clinics in Afghanistan.
Education and health have always been the core principals of AIL. Over time Yacoobi’s programs have grown from simple literacy and basic health classes to wide-reaching institutions of higher education, elaborate vocational programs, and medical clinics. “Now we’re appealing to the elite,” Yacoobi says. “We have programs to learn English, computer programs, workshops for law, and a government program to learn about democracy and leadership. We are no longer just reading and writing. I’m trying to provide quality according to the needs of the people.”
Yacoobi says she feels attitudes have changed greatly since she was growing up. “People gain awareness,” she says. “They are learning that education is the key issue to building success in their lives.” She says there are still misconceptions about girls and parents who force their daughters to drop out of school and marry young, but she is seeing more and more parents who are like the father she once had. As a result, more young students are eagerly and freely walking through her doors.
“That has given me all my joy and happiness,” she says. “I live in a place where bombs are exploding and just walking outside might get you killed. But I feel joy because I see young men and women so full of energy and potential, and they need guidance and somebody to encourage them. I want to work until I am 80 years old.”
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Kristin Kloberdanz is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. She has written for Time, the Chicago Tribune and Forbes.com about everything from economic crises and political snafus to best summer beach reads.