The odds of a man in Afghanistan learning to read are roughly 3 to 1 against him. For a woman, they are 5 to 1, or worse.
Sakena Lida Yacoobi not only beat the odds, she has spent much of her life trying to improve them for others.
When she left her native Herat, Afghanistan, to attend college in California, she was the first in her family to pursue higher education. She received her Bachelor of Arts Degree in Biological Sciences in 1977 from the University of the Pacific, Stockton, California, thus becoming the first woman from her hometown to earn a degree in the United States. Then she went on to achieve a Master’s Degree in Public Health from Loma Linda University, California, in 1981.
Her early work was as a health consultant and teacher in the U.S. She provided family therapy to private patients and counseled individuals on a wide range of health issues. As a professor at D’Etre University in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, she taught biology, mathematics and psychology.
Back home, the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, turning millions of people into refugees, including Professor Yacoobi’s parents. She helped them emigrate to the United States, and in 1992 she began her work with Afghan refugees living in Pakistan. She joined the International Rescue Committee as manager, and later coordinator, of its Female Education and Teacher Training Program in Peshawar, Pakistan.
Recognizing the need to involve Afghans in the process and to respect both religion and custom, Professor Yacoobi established a grassroots program within IRC and within a year had quadrupled the number of Afghan girls enrolled in school. The program also trained the first female teacher trainers, with the dual goal of improving education overall and of increasing girls’ and women’s access to education. With a staff of 680 people, she managed five women’s programs serving 17,000 refugees in the areas of primary education, health education, pre-school education, English language training and computer and office training.
Then the Soviet war in Afghanistan ended and IRC’s involvement wound down, so in 1995 Professor Yacoobi founded the Afghan Institute of Learning to continue the work and to expand it into Afghanistan.
Under her direction as president and executive director, AIL quickly grew to be one of the largest women-led, non-governmental organizations in the country.
In explaining why she is driven to continue her work, Professor Yacoobi said, “I am reminded of the children in Peshawar when they first come to school. In their eyes I see fear, sadness, and hopelessness. But in just a few weeks, the same children are standing taller, laughing and playing with smiles across their faces… . When you make education available to the Afghan children, it is like giving them new life and hope for the future.”
Professor Yacoobi is also vice president of Creating Hope International, an NGO headquartered in Dearborn, Michigan. She has traveled extensively, lecturing and participating in forums on various issues related to her work empowering women. Among her more recent engagements, she was a delegate to the United Nations Millennium Forum for NGOs in New York in 2000, a delegate to the Roundtable on Women’s Leadership in Rebuilding Afghanistan sponsored by UNIFEM and the Belgian government in Brussels in 2001, an NGO delegate to the U N Population Fund Conference on Gender Violence in Slovaki in 2002; and a panelist at the International Institute on Peace Education in Seoul, Korea in 2003.