There's a new focus on women worldwide. The New York Times magazine dedicated their entire issue one week in August on women in the developing world. Of particular focus was a newly launched book written by the well-known Pulitzer winning couple Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl DuWunn titled: "Half The Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide". The press focus on this timely book is significant- from reviews in Harvard and People magazine, to upcoming segments on shows like "The Today Show", the time has come for women and their issues worldwide to be in the spotlight.
Sakena Yacoobi and her organization the Afghan Institute of Learning is one of the topics in Chapter Nine of the book. Dr. Yacoobi grew up in Herat, Afghanistan and then came to the United States to study at the University of the Pacific and Loma Linda University. Concerned about the condition of her people back in Afghanistan, Sakena returned to Pakistan to work in Afghan refugee camps and later went to Afghanistan. Although the Taliban forbade girls from getting an education in Afghanistan, Sakena was instrumental in establishing a string of secret girls schools with community support.
Today, the Afghan Institute of Learning has multiple education programs in Pakistan and in seven provinces of Afghanistan. There are educational learning centers for women and children, preschool programs, post-secondary institutes, a university, and teacher training programs. In addition, AIL has an in-depth program of health education and treatment for women and small children. Since its start in 1995, AIL has trained nearly 16,000 teachers and over 3.5 million women and children have received a quality education. With the health programs included, AIL has directly impacted over 6.7 million Afghans.
Sakena has been and continues to be recognized for her work. Her philosophy is to develop a program from the grass-roots level so the community members are an integral part of the process. State Kristof and DuWunn in their book Half The Sky- "American organizations would have accomplished much more if they had financed and supported Sakena, rather than dispatching their own representatives to Kabul...The best role for Americans who want to help Muslim women isn't holding the microphone at the front of the rally, but writing the checks and carrying the bags in the back."
Dr. Yacoobi and the work of the Afghan Institute of Learning have been supported by multiple grantors and organizations over the years. "I wish to thank everyone who has helped in this important work," states Sakena. "I want to share with each and every contributor the joy of seeing a young woman, who has a renewed interest in life because she can now read, or the happiness of a widow who has learned a skill that will allow her to support her children.
"We now have children who are healthy because of inoculations, and women who did not die during childbirth who have happy, healthy babies. My wish is that these small steps that allow awareness and growth in families will lead to the growth of our country."
Recently, we spoke with Sakena, and she has this message to all the supporters of AIL:
"It is an honor to be included in Nicholas' and Sheryl's book Half The Sky. So many foundations and individuals have contributed to the work that the Afghan Institute of Learning has been able to do in Afghanistan.
"From the bottom of my heart I want to thank all who have understood the plight of Afghan women and children, and have reached out with compassionate, caring support.
"May God reward your generosity......."
Recently, AIL was asked by the Afghan Ministry of Women’s Affairs to report on the impact AIL’s programs have had. We were amazed by our findings. Since beginning in 1996 through May 2009, 220,970 Afghans have been educated in AIL schools, centers and post-secondary institutions and overall 6,778,026 Afghan lives have been directly impacted by AIL programs.
Women and girls, who learn tailoring in AIL’s Women’s Learning Centers, are among those that AIL has educated. During the first six months of 2009, your donations helped 844 Afghan women and girls take classes in tailoring. The classes offer women a way to support themselves financially and often lead to the women becoming literate by participating in literacy courses at AIL’s Educational Learning Centers.
Here is the story of Kubra, a young woman who returned to Afghanistan from Iran. “I heard about the center in my town and have found that it is ideal for me because it has great teachers and the education I receive is high quality. First I was admitted to the tailoring course, and after I passed it I was advised by my teacher to take the advanced class. After completing this course, I became a professional tailor. I am very fortunate; I have many customers and often stay up until midnight sewing my customer’s dresses. I also have a contract with the local market and sew products according to their orders. Before I came to this AIL center, I was a very disappointed person and I thought I could not do anything to help my family. What I am now is because of the AIL center in our area.”
AIL recently received an update from Hafisa, a young woman that had taken classes at a Women’s Learning Center in rural Herat, Afghanistan. As a teenage girl, Hafisa began going to the WLC in her village where she became literate and learned to sew. In all of her classes, the teachers talked about human rights, peace, health and leadership, emphasizing that anyone can be a leader, even if in a small way.
After graduating from the center, Hafisa was married and moved away. Hafisa’s sewing skills quickly made her popular in her new village with many people bringing her dresses for sewing. Soon, people in the village began asking her to open a center and teach other women to sew. Hafisa remembered the leadership lessons she learned at the AIL WLC in her village and knew that she could start a class.
Starting a center to teach women to sew is a fairly novel concept. At first, her family ignored the requests, but due to community persistence, Hafisa’s family eventually allowed her to open a center in her home. Now she uses one room of her house to teach a sewing class and has 40 students. She collects a fee from the students, and this income has helped to change her family’s economic situation. She is respected in her community and her family is proud of her. Whenever she goes to her own village to see her parents, she visits the AIL center and thanks AIL for giving her the opportunity to be a useful person in her community. Not only did Hafisa learn to sew, she learned to be a leader and found that she could run a self-sufficient center.
A student of one of AIL’s centers says, “When I came to this center, I was hopeless because I was not sure that I could learn to sew, and wanted to learn so that I could support my family with this skill. My father died and my mother works in a rich man’s house as a cleaner. She leaves each day at 6:00 am and comes back home at 7:30 pm. Day by day, with my interest and effort and my teacher encouraging me, I learned to sew. Finally I reached a high enough level that my teacher helped me to market my skills and introduced me to her customers. The customers bring me materials for sewing and I charge them for sewing clothes from these materials. Through my business I can support my family. I must thank AIL for providing this opportunity for women who are poor and do not have much education.”
During 2008 the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) trained 2153 women in sewing and tailoring class in AIL Learning Centers. 95 – 100% of the women trained in the centers say that they use the skills learned in these classes to help support their families. Often, the women who begin coming to the Learning Centers to take sewing and tailoring courses end up also taking literacy courses.
This is the case with a female student who was recently promoted to the sixth grade. She says, “I am very happy, so much that I can’t explain, but you can see it on my face. Today, my eyes are familiar with reading and my hands familiar with sewing, all because of the AIL Office and their kind trainers. I and all of the center students always pray for Professor Sakena Yacoobi (the executive director of AIL) and all of her staff for giving us the opportunity to come out of our homes and learn many things from our kind teachers, it is a bright spot in our lives. Always, it has been my wish to be literate, work somewhere and do things to help my family and my people and thank God, now I can do it.”
One success story illustrating how the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) not only trains women to support themselves but also empowers them to be leaders in their communities comes from one of AIL’s sewing and tailoring training courses in Herat. Parima was a student in one of AIL’s WLCs in Herat Province. Since completing the course, she has established her own business sewing garments and is earning a good income. Because Parima’s village didn’t have a center, Parima began training women and girls in tailoring. She is now working in conjunction with AIL and when Parima’s students complete her course they will be allowed to take AIL’s final sewing exam. After successfully completing the exam, the students will be awarded with a certificate from AIL.
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