An Afghan Reformist


Sakena Yacoobi, who was in India recently to receive Sri Sathya Sai Award for Human Excellence, is relentlessly pursuing the cause of education and health in war-torn Afghanistan. She is the founder of the Afghan Institute of Learning, the Professor Sakena Yacoobi Private Hospital in Herat, the Professor Sakena Yacoobi Private High Schools in Kabul and Herat, Afghanistan and the radio station, Meraj in Herat Province, Afghanistan.


Back home in Aghanistan, she is known as the ‘Mother of Education.’ The 67-year-old Sakena Yacoobi runs six private schools, one private hospital, 350 learning centres, eight clinics and an orphanage in Afghanistan. Around 14.5 million have studied in her centres till now and 3000 teachers have undergone training by her. And not to forget, a local radio station, Radio Meraj. However, Sakena, feels there is still a long way to go.

“I hope to continue till my last day. Women of Afghanistan are tired of war and violence. They have suffered for 40 years… Women of Afghanistan are smart and now want their life back,” says Sakena, who was in town to receive Sri Sathya Sai Award for Human Excellence.

Sakena studied and worked in public health in the United States but when she noticed the inhuman condition of Afghan refugees in Pakistan, she yearned to do something for them. She founded her first school in a refugee camp in 1991.

“My life has been filled with dangers, but I feel God has been watching over me. I just couldn’t sit back and watch people in my country suffer. I had a good job but I couldn’t see people especially women in such bad conditions,” says the activist who also received the prestigious Wise Prize in 2015 for her humanitarian work.

Such a Long Journey

She says her father had a hunch about things taking a turn for the worse in Afghanistan and sent her to the US to study.

“My family had to leave Afghanistan following the Russian invasion. For years, I didn’t know where my family was. I supported myself with odd jobs, but I kept remembering my father. We met after a long time. I brought all thirteen members of my family to the US but soon returned to work with Afghan refugees.”

Resolving to educate men, women and children, Sakena began 80 secret schools in Afghanistan. The children would be taught using participative methodology by teachers trained by Sakena. Education wasn’t enough, the right process of teaching was the need of the hour.

“When I was in school, learning was by rote, which was not the right way. I wanted to change the way students learned; so I wrote eight manuals. The training focused on teachers building a relationship of love and affection with students. They needed to encourage the children to ask questions, learn by experience, by innovative and interactive methods.”

Concerned about health of women, within one centre, Sakena started a learning centre and a clinic in the same vicinity.

“It was not easy for women to come out to read and write. The husbands would allow them to come only if they were earning some money. So, we started doing skills-training in computers, tailoring, beauty shop management etc. Once, they come to these centres, I see how free they feel.”

Tea with the Taliban

One day, nine Taliban men landed up at her home. The office staff had warned her of their arrival and asked her to leave. While everyone left, she stayed put.

“They said, ‘Don’t you know education is not allowed? Then, why are you teaching?’ I said, ‘Let us have a cup of tea.’ They refused, but I persisted. I said, ‘Don’t you want your children to be able to read and understand the Qur’an? That is what I am doing here.’ They had a cup of tea and, in Pashtu, they said to each other, ‘She is fine. Leave her.’”

With her efforts, she also earned the approval of the authorities. The relationship between her and government is cordial. “They even send me people to train in English and management. Also, I have never taken financial support from them which I feel is another reason for our excellent rapport.”

The fiery reformist likens women to a vehicle’s engine. “The vehicle won’t work if the engine does not. If women are educated, they make sure, their children also go to school. If you ignore 60% of your population, then what will happen? Your economy is collapsing because you are ignoring women. The problem is we make women a minority.” [Excerpted from an article appearing in The Hindu]

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