Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Meet Sakena Yacoobi – Afghanistan’s mother of education

Sakena Yacoobi in Sayabad learning centre in Afghanistan/  © courtesy of WISE (World Innovation Summit for Education)     

I wanted to follow Sakena Yacoobi to remote communities in Afghanistan to see how she teaches women and children how to think for themselves and stand up for their rights.  But here I was at the Park Plaza Westminster Bridge Hotel in London on a rainy day. 

Yacoobi is one of my heroes: someone who makes a difference, who makes the world a better place. She is called “Afghanistan’s mother of education” and for more than two decades she has been transforming lives through community-based education. 

I was so excited to meet her, but she was jet-lagged and drained – a small figure a bit hunched, wrapped in black, with a slow, tired voice. But when she started talking about education, she grew taller, her voice stronger, her eyes shone and her whole being was infused with passion.

Yacoobi was born in Herat, Afghanistan, and could have led a comfortable life in the US where she had studied, then settled as a university professor.  But when Russia invaded Afghanistan, she decided to go to Pakistan where many Afghans had sought refuge and set up schools in refugee camps.  She then moved back to Afghanistan where she opened schools for girls in defiance of the Taliban who had banned education for girls and set strict laws dictating what children could learn.   She wanted to “counteract ignorance” and give thousands of girls, women and unprivileged children a  better chance in life. 

She created the Afghanistan Institute of Learning (AIL) in 1995 and her organization now runs 44 learning centers for women and children in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as four clinics, a hospital, an orphanage, a program for street children and a radio station that brings education to isolated regions.  

She says she has dedicated her life to promoting education because it is the only way to bring peace. “Conflict is the result of ignorance. International governments spend billions of dollars on weapons – just think what that money could do if it went towards education.”

You can read my interview with Yacoobi in New Internationalist here.