The Risks Worth the Rewards of Empowering Women and Children in Afghanistan

By John Oronte

On October 9th, Dr. Sakena Yacoobi, founder and director of the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL), visited the Give2Asia office in San Francisco to talk about the developments of her organization and civil society in Afghanistan.

Dr. Yacoobi has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and been given the Democracy Award from the National Endowment for Democracy. She has spoken at conferences that include the Clinton Global Initiative and the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Despite her amazing accomplishments, the first thing one can gather from speaking with her, is that she is not satisfied.

Though AIL has had a measurable impact on the transformation of Afghanistan’s civil society, she will be the first to say there is much more work to be done in order to bring peace and dignity to the Afghan people - and there few people more committed than Dr. Sakena Yacoobi to achieving that dream.

AIL’s story began when Russia invaded Afghanistan. Dr. Yacoobi found herself amongst fellow Afghani refugees in Peshawar Pakistan, almost 180 miles from the Afghanistan capital of Kabul. Amongst the Afghanistan refugees, she began by setting up a tent that would act as a makeshift school where children could come and learn a variety of subjects. From that point on, the growth of AIL was integrated into and perpetuated by the Afghan community; starting with the addition of more tents, the transition into teacher’s homes, and eventually moving across the border into Afghanistan where it spread, despite the constant threat of the Taliban.

Since 1995, AIL has been providing access to improved healthcare and education. It has trained more than 20,000 teachers, primarily women (70%), to provide education to women and children. Until 2001, AIL worked through underground home schools to educate students.

In the beginning, Dr. Yacoobi smuggled academic books into Afghanistan herself, putting them in bags of rice and flower, while traveling with up to three male escorts in order to not arouse suspicion of her illegal activity. Schools, which were typically homes of respected community members and school teachers, would have school children enter in secret, in some cases through hidden entrances, to keep her operation from being exposed. If Yacoobi or her associates were caught, she reminded us, they would have been killed.

Today AIL is recognized internationally for its work in reconstructing education and health systems in Afghanistan, serving as a model that has been adopted by the government and other NGOs in Afghanistan that are all working to realize an Afghanistan, in Yacoobi’s words, that “she used to know," one where "people can all live together in harmony and peace."

The Women’s Learning Center, one of AIL’s many programs, is the largest vocational training center in Afghanistan, offering a range of classes that include subjects like sewing or reading to women.

As the NATO draws down its military numbers in Afghanistan, political instability has become a major concern. Despite lack of security, and lack of access to electricity, water, or financial services, Yacoobi remains undaunted by the challenges that lie ahead.

Said Yacoobi, “There is change happening but there is still a fight; people are educated; have tasted freedom and democracy and can not look back.”

She has not given up on Afghanistan. What is truly the most moving part about meeting Dr. Sakena Yacoobi is just how fearless she is, particularly in the face of so many uncertainties and challenges.

While the world may be watching Afghanistan with uncertainty, fearing that it may be too unstable to move ahead with investments or business, Dr. Sakena Yacoobi remains unwilling to give up her resolve in working for Afghanistan she knew; one forgotten through forty years of war, but not destroyed.

To learn more about her amazing story, accomplishments, Afghan Institute for Learning, or to find out how to make contributions to her cause, please visit AIL’s website here. Or, make a donation to AIL through Give2Asia at