Skip to main content
An education activist known for her long and dangerous struggle to fulfil Afghan children and women’s right to education and healthcare through the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL), founded during the times when the Taliban regime banned girls from going to school.
Mother of Afghanistan

“Mother of Afghanistan” is not just an honorary title that people use to describe Dr. Sakena Yacoobi. That is, in essence, how she feels about children and women she has been working with. She was one of the first people to open schools for women and girls in refugee camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the 1990s. It was the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the rise of the Taliban, and women and girls were forbidden from getting an education. Rule-breakers risked paying with their life.

Sakena Yacoobi was born before those rules and brought up in a family and in an environment where education wasn’t banned for girls. After finishing high school, she went to the United States in pursuit of further knowledge. Earning a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences and a master’s in public health could guarantee her a safe life in the United States. But she made another decision: Sakena’s heart was in her homeland – Afghanistan. She had a dream, which she turned into a mission: to give all women and girls the same opportunity that she had – access to education.

“I said to myself, I must do something. What could be more than education? No matter what you give people, they need to speak for themselves. People need to stand on their own and people need to think critically; they need to be creative; they need to be innovative. People need a peaceful environment. How can one provide all those things? The education is the only way. Once you educate them, they will do for themselves. That’s why I decided to come back to Afghanistan. It wasn’t easy; it was very tough,” recalls Dr. Yacoobi.

A Dream Turned Mission

Sakena Yacoobi began her work in a refugee camp in Pakistan. Over time, Dr. Yacoobi noticed how education was changing people’s minds, lives and attitudes. She knew that the key for success, first of all, was trust. People trusted her because she became one of them, living in the refugee camp for seven long years.

“I had no need to convince them; they saw my lifestyle. They saw I was a good person fulfilling my duties and being religious at the same time. To be correct, I am not a religious fanatic; I’m a spiritual person. But at the same time, I believe in the quality of education. They realized that I wasn’t against their religion or values; I wasn’t brainwashing them. So, they trusted me and sent their children to school.” Sakena Yacoobi still remembers every single day in the refugee camp; she also vividly recalls the day when people from Afghanistan came literally to beg her to go back and start a school in Afghanistan, too.

After the Taliban had closed girls’ schools in the 1990s, Yacoobi established The Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) in 1995. She started this journey with a single underground home school and ended up with 80 schools for 3,000 girls in Afghanistan. There were 1-8 grade home schools running all day long, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. There was no exact time to start the classes. Girls were coming one by one at different times not to attract the attention of the Taliban.

Teaching Hub for Women

In 2002, the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan changed the situation. The government opened schools for female students, and it seemed as if Afghan Learning Institute’s mission was complete. But women were still in trouble, and Sakena knew that. Most of the schools were in the cities, and rural communities continued to be marginalized. The Institute led by Sakena Yacoobi decided to open Learning Centers to teach, train and empower Afghan women to stand for themselves.

“Women in Afghanistan are very smart. I witness it as I work with them. The women of Afghanistan want to speak out, they want to work and to be educated. They want to have a better life. I have dedicated my life to this organization and these people. Young people are so enthusiastic. They think positive and never stop and just wait to see what is coming. When you are surrounded with such people, it’s hard not to do what you are doing. They are beautiful and they work hard; they deserve the best,” says Sakena Yacoobi, who wants every girl and every woman in Afghanistan to have access to education.

Sakena’s organization built a one-of-a-kind teaching hub attracting people of different ages and levels of education. They learned to read and write; they were taught to be entrepreneurs and earn their own money. About 350,000 women and children complete classes at the Afghan Institute of Learning’s schools and training centers every year. AIL created specialized health clinics for women, enabling many of them to see a doctor for the first time ever. Since 1996, 16 million Afghans have been impacted, either directly or indirectly, by AIL’s education, training and health programs.

It’s not an easy task for Sakena Yacoobi to single out a success story of their long-term efforts. Each day of their struggle brought them a step closer to big changes. Surviving the Taliban regime and staying afloat is a success on its own.

“We set up a leadership program. Young women want to be leaders; they want to change their country. We reach out to them; they reach out to others. The following is a success story. There was an incident a few years ago. A woman came to us for help. Her husband wanted to marry off their little daughter, selling her for 14,000 afghanis (about $180). Our lawyers helped her and saved the girl from being married against her will. She began studying at one of our Learning Centers. She learned to sew. We gave her a sewing machine and a table. Now she earns her own money by sewing, making 15,000 afghanis per month. This is more than her father wanted to sell her for. She is a good example to show people that by getting an education and raising your voice you can achieve success. Now she is 16.” This is just one story amongst thousands Dr. Yacoobi can tell.

Call to Support

The poor economic and political situation and ongoing war in Afghanistan has always worried people like Dr. Yacoobi. She realizes that only peace can bring prosperity to her country. That’s why she never stops telling the world her story of Afghan people, women and children, and now she has become one of the most anticipated speakers at international conferences and events. She wishes she were younger to have more time for her mission.

Sakena’s eyes fill with tears when she imagines Afghanistan’s future without peace: “We need to stop this war. We need the world to stand behind us, especially behind the women of Afghanistan. They count on the international community’s support because they have been promised it. But now everybody is forgetting about Afghanistan. The country is falling off the radar. I’m so afraid that Afghanistan may fall back into the hands of people who are against women. We’ll lose a lot.”

In 2005, Sakena Yacoobi was among the 1,000 women who were jointly nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. In the last three decades, her fight for Afghan women has brought her numerous awards and international recognition, which gives her hope and strength to never give up.

“I hope there would be a day that every child, every girl could go to school, and everyone would have equal opportunities. That is the idea of Afghanistan I have been dreaming of and looking forward to. I’m hopeful that we will achieve it. It’s not easy, it will be [done] step by step; with slow steps.”