Sakena Yacoobi: Afghanistan’s ‘mother of education’

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Sakena Yacoobi: Afghanistan’s ‘mother of education’

Veronique Mistiaen meets Sakena Yacoobi. For more than twenty years, she has been changing lives with community-based learning.


© courtesy of WISE (World Innovation Summit for Education)

‘When I first started working in an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan, I wanted to help change the Afghan people with education. I wanted them to be able to think, ask questions and solve their own problems. Now, more than 20 years later, I still want the same thing’ says Sakena Yacoobi.

Yacoobi is small, but she is passionate about school and learning. She believes that community-based education can change societies, and that educating women is the best way to make sure we have peace and development.

‘Education has changed Afghanistan. It is completely different from 20 years ago. Women have developed critical thinking, they are asking questions, they run for Parliament. They stand up for their rights – on land, property, marriage, domestic violence, education, citizenship,’ she says.

Yacoobi was born in Herat, Afghanistan. When she was young, she saw the effects of poverty in her country: ‘There were no schools; no hospitals. People had no way to make their lives better. I wanted to change that.’ She studied for a Master’s in Public Health in the US. Then she moved to Pakistan and started her first school in an Afghan refugee camp in 1991. ‘Women had lost everything. They suffered in the war, they didn’t trust us. So we needed to start from the beginning. We asked what they needed. We built a learning centre. And we asked the community to help.’ The main point is that education should support what people want to do for themselves.

In the first two years of the first school, she worked with 15,000 children. Communities in Afghanistan started to ask for her help and she moved back to her own country. She created the Afghanistan Institute of Learning (AIL) in 1995, to offer education, health and training to women and children. Under the Taliban, AIL ran 80 secret home-schools, and educated about 3,000 girls.

Her organization now runs 44 learning centres for women and children in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It also runs four clinics, a hospital, an orphanage (for children with no parents), a programme for street children and a radio station to take education outside the cities. AIL has helped more than 11 million Afghans and Yacoobi has won many awards for her work (eg. the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) Prize for Education in 2015).

She wants her community-based education to grow all over Afghanistan, and to other countries. To do this, she wants to open a university to train teachers and develop the teaching plan. She also wants to start a TV station for women’s rights and education.

But there are many problems. Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. Millions of children – especially girls – are still not going to school, and there is not enough security. Yacoobi is worried that other countries are not so interested in Afghanistan now and don’t want to help. So there won’t be enough money to improve schools and pay for materials and teachers.

‘Yes, Afghanistan has problems, but this is normal after 40 years of war and conflict. We need to work together. It’s an problem for all of us, not just Afghanistan. Give us a chance. We need help; we need more funding and training.’

But Yacoobi is optimistic. ‘There will be more problems, but we are not sitting in a corner saying we cannot do anything about it. We continue to work hard. We are making a difference. We are changing our lives through education and we want the world to know that.’

Veronique Mistiaen writes about human rights, social issues, development and the environment. She tweets at @VeroMistiaen and blogs at

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