In 1995, Sakena Yacoobi cofounded the Afghan Institute for Learning (AIL) — today one of the largest nonprofit organizations in Afghanistan — and is now its president and executive director. AIL provides education and health services to over 350,000 women and children annually in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with offices in the United States, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Sakena has received numerous prestigious awards for peace-building, including the Peacemakers in Action Award from the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, the Gruber Prize, the Bill Graham Award from the Rex Foundation, and most recently, the Kravis Prize for Leadership.
In this interview, Global Fund for Women (GFW) staff Preeti Mangala Shekar and Christine Ahn discuss hopes for Afghanistan in an Obama administration with Yacoobi, who is a GFW board member.
PREETI MANGALA SHEKAR & CHRISTINE AHN: Tell us about the work of the Afghan Institute of Learning in education and peace building.
SAKEENA YACOOBI: The Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) mainly focuses on education. In Afghanistan, almost 60% of the population is women. They are heads of households supporting families. Once a woman becomes educated, she will make sure that her children are educated. When AIL educates women we also train them in sewing, embroidery, and weaving so that they can earn income to support their family.
We also educate women on their rights, so that they are empowered and able to defend themselves if abused. Some Afghan women are forced into early child marriage because they don’t realize they have a choice of whom they can marry.
SHEKAR & AHN: We understand that Afghanistan has the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world. How are you dealing with that?
YACOOBI: We provide family planning and health education in our clinic. The good news is that in the 20 years of providing education and raising awareness, we have reduced the mortality rate by 6%. This is amazing news for us to know that the information we provide about family planning and healthy families leads to useful knowledge and practice.
SHEKAR & AHN: There are many in the United States, including President Obama, who believe troops are needed to secure and stabilize the country and ensure humanitarian aid is delivered. What do you think?
YACOOBI: Security is the biggest issue in Afghanistan. The United States has helped us before and then let the situation in Afghanistan get so bad so that now there are opposition groups everywhere that are creating problems. Troops can provide some security. But as you know, a lot of innocent people and children are being killed because when they raid a house, they kill civilians. The problem is that the situation is so bad that it’s impossible to settle a peace negotiation and engage in a conversation because those people are everywhere. Peacekeeping is one way to negotiate with these people, but right now, for maintaining security, I think that troops are needed — but our own troops, not American.
If the United States really wants to help stabilize our country, I would tell President Obama that the United States should direct its resources to planning, developing the infrastructure, and providing jobs for the people of Afghanistan and region. If people have enough to eat, a job, money to support their family, then they would not resort to suicide bombing, blowing themselves up and innocent people. Countries need some sort of national security — but most foreign troops are not primarily focused on protecting women and children. Their focus is on beating the enemy, which is very different, and ordinary citizens become collateral damage in the process.
SHEKAR & AHN: We know that education can be dangerous work. Students have been killed. How do you keep going amid the chaos?
YACOOBI: The people of Afghanistan have been suffering for 36 years. There is not one single family that has not sacrificed. Afghani women’s hands are tied. We have no control over the opposition groups in Afghanistan who are fighting for different reasons. The way we learn to cope is by hoping each day that today or tomorrow this will be over. We keep counting the days.
SHEKAR & AHN: How can Afghanis pressure their government to be more responsible, more accountable, and less corrupt?
YACOOBI: Many people tell me that Afghanistan should have democracy, but how can a society, a nation, have democracy when the people of that nation don’t know how to read and write? How can you implement a democracy if people don’t know their rights? We have a constitution, but it needs to be implemented. We cannot just talk about democracy. We have to prepare people for democracy.
SHEKAR & AHN: How do the politics and priorities of South Asia impact Afghanistan, particularly India and Pakistan?
YACOOBI: Whatever happens in Afghanistan directly impacts Pakistan and India. People ask me where the Taliban come from. I don’t know where they come from, but I know they are not Afghan because when a suicide bomber is caught, they are from some other country. That means other parts of the world are interfering with our problems.
SHEKAR & AHN: What message do you have for the international community?
YACOOBI: First of all they should not underestimate the people of Afghanistan. They are people that have never been conquered and they never will be conquered. And second, don’t underestimate the women of Afghanistan. Don’t think of them as poor, abused, and oppressed.