Sakena Yacoobi

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 2006
This description of Sakena Yacoobi's work was prepared when Sakena Yacoobi was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2006.


Sakena Yacoobi uses a non-confrontational, participatory approach to mobilize local leaders and communities in the education, health and empowerment of Afghan girls and women. Her interactive educational methodology and grassroots approach are spreading throughout Afghanistan.

The New Idea

Sakena founded the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) in 1995 as a way to implement her dynamic, systemic approach to social change. AIL bases its services on several basic tenets: it aims to be responsive to the needs communities express themselves, rather than imposing solutions on them; it includes people from a variety of backgrounds; it works to establish trust; it requires communities to contribute to the projects it undertakes.Although traditional Afghan village social structures, gender roles, and religious beliefs often actively discourage the education of women, Sakena harnesses these very institutions to establish interactive programs in education, health, human rights, peace education, environmental awareness, democracy, and income generation. Using innovative teaching methodology, and a receptive approach to community engagement, she is setting a sustainable and practical course for women’s progress.

The Problem

In Afghan society, there is a wide range of standards for acceptable female behavior and men have different beliefs about how women should be treated. Many traditional Afghan customs impinge on the rights of women and may be considered alien to the spirit of Islam. The dictates of Islam, however, are subject to a wide variety of interpretations among reformists, Islamists, and ultraconservatives, and debates between these groups can be volatile.Gender reform has been an important part of the political debate in Afghanistan for nearly a century—central to bringing about the fall of King Amanullah in 1929. Thirty years later, the government of Prime Minister Daud Khan supported the voluntary removal of the veil and the end of seclusion for women, and the 1964 Constitution enfranchised women and guaranteed the right to education and to work. Until the late 1970s, growing numbers of women, primarily from modernized, urban backgrounds, participated in the public arena.This came to a halt in 1978. The mujahidin leaders and the vast majority of the population waged a struggle against the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union, which they understood as both military and ideological. In order to be protected, Afghan women began wearing the hejab and stopped moving freely in public. Under the Taliban, the situation for women became very restricted. The Taliban proclaimed ultraconservative interpretations of Islam on the people of Afghanistan and imposed a strict ban on education for girls. The practice of purdah (meaning seclusion, or, more literally, curtain), including veiling, was the most visible manifestation of these practices. This concept includes an insistence on separate spaces for men and women. Women are also forbidden from interacting with men other than their guardians; usually a male relative such as a father, brother, or son. These restrictions severely limited women's activities, including their access to education and employment. Many were largely confined to their homes.In 2001, a democratically elected government replaced the Taliban and increased women’s freedoms. However, Afghan women continue to experience socially mandated constraints that limit their access to pursue an education and become economically self-sufficient. Foreign campaigns to assure the rights of Afghan women to an education and employment, has at times been counterproductive; failing to consider local religious and cultural sensitivities. Despite the international attention and funds that have flowed into the country since the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan remains one of the poorest nations in the world. It has among the world’s lowest literacy rates and highest rates of infant and maternal mortality and the infrastructure for education and healthcare are desperate.Foreign aid agencies assistance toward development and in providing relief services, yield mixed results. An inadequate understanding of the language, culture, religion, resources, and history of Afghan communities often hinders international organizations in their efforts to provide successful, sustainable growth. In addition, grassroots, citizen organizations are unfamiliar to many Afghans; further complicating their efforts. Sakena believes empowering the citizen sector is key to the development of sustainable and systemic change.

The Strategy

Sakena founded AIL in 1995 while working with the International Rescue Center in Afghan refugee camps across the border in Pakistan. When women in the camps requested educational opportunities for themselves and their children, AIL established learning centers. Following this, AIL began to offer workshops on democracy and human rights; which it carefully termed “Islamic rights”. After the fall of the Taliban, AIL continued its work in Afghanistan. These programs were so successful that the Afghan government has begun applying Sakena’s interactive methodology to educational institutions throughout the country. AIL is one of the largest citizen sector organizations in Afghanistan, and presently serves an estimated 350,000 people annually with education, health and training programs.   Sakena’s strategy begins with community consensus. AIL works with community leaders to plan, develop, and implement of all its projects, and requires that a community request their involvement and consent to the proposed project. This approach provides an atmosphere of acceptance and trust. This is especially vital when implementing new programs in conservative, isolated communities. Sakena builds the capacity of AIL’s education projects and local grassroots efforts by providing interactive training. At the core of her methodology, AIL uses innovative teaching methods based on critical thinking and interactive learning. AIL has trained 13,000 teachers in their 24-day pedagogy seminar to teach students to think using interactive, student-centered methodologies; replacing rote memorization which is quite common in Afghan education. Sakena emphasizes the teachers’ participation; instead of telling them how to teach, AIL encourages them to discuss topics such as education, leadership, management, health, science, democracy, human rights, and information technology. Throughout the training sessions, special care is taken to ensure their methodology respects the cultural and religious norms of the community. When debates on women’s rights arise, for example, AIL trainers quote appropriate passages from the Koran to validate their message. Since 1996, AIL has supported over 200 schools and educational centers, including 80 “underground” home schools for girls under the Taliban. AIL’s training manual is used to train pre-school teachers in the public and private sector. To give high school graduates an opportunity for post-secondary education, AIL with Gawhar Shad University, partners with colleges in computer science, pedagogy and health. AIL was the first organization to open Women’s Learning Centers and offer fast track literacy and skills training classes with human rights, peace, health and democracy messages integrated into the curriculum. A leader in health education, AIL includes health related topics into the curriculum of all courses. In addition, AIL has developed health workshops in reproductive health, Aids, gender-based violence, and self-immolation. AIL also runs a nine-month intensive nurse/midwife/health educator course and provides health education training to 90,000 women annually. To support its education and health efforts, AIL publishes an education and health magazine quarterly. Finally, Sakena asks communities to contribute between 30 and 50 percent of the resources needed for any given project. These contributions can come in the form of donated space, materials, supplies, partial teachers’ salaries, fees or assistance with security. This requirement strengthens the communities’ involvement and ownership of the programs requested. This strengthens the sustainability of the projects and empowers people to continue efforts to improve their communities. This approach lays the groundwork for the Afghan people, particularly women and children, and is an important first step—Sakena believes—to achieve sustainable growth and eventual self-sufficiency.Sakena’s approach to education and women’s empowerment may be tailored and replicated for diverse sectors of Afghan society; with the potential to spread outside Afghanistan.

The Person

Sakena was the first person in her family to pursue higher education and the first woman from her hometown to earn a degree in the United States. She received her bachelors degree in Biological Sciences in 1977 from the University of the Pacific in California and four years later earned her masters degree in public health from Loma Linda University in Southern California. Despite doubts that a Muslim woman would be accepted, Sakena was welcomed by her peers; their peaceful lifestyle and appreciation for nature appealed to her. She respected their faith and participated in the community. Sakena’s ability to transcend and challenge traditional, faith-based social boundaries has become a theme throughout her life.Later, as a consultant and educator in the United States, Sakena 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. While Sakena was abroad, the Soviet Union was invading Afghanistan, turning millions of people, including Sakena’s parents, into refugees. In response to this invasion and the subsequent Afghan refugee crisis in Pakistan, Sakena left the U.S. and joined the International Rescue Committee (IRC) as manager, and later coordinator, of its women’s education and teacher training programs in Peshawar, Pakistan. During her time with the IRC, Sakena realized that Afghans needed to become involved in their educational process, so she established a grassroots program within the IRC. Within a year, the number of Afghan girls enrolled in the IRC’s schools quadrupled. The program also trained female teacher trainers, with the dual goal of improving education overall and of increasing girls’ and women’s access to an education. She managed a staff of 680, and oversaw programs serving 17,000 refugees in the areas of primary education, health education, pre-school education, English language training, and computer and office training.When the Soviet war ended in Afghanistan, the IRC’s work with women received a decrease in funding, and in 1995, Sakena founded AIL to continue her efforts and expand throughout Afghanistan. Under her direction as President and Executive Director, AIL quickly became one of the largest women-led, citizen organizations in the country. With 470 employees, 83 percent of whom are women, it is a leading model in rebuilding Afghan civil society.