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 and received skills training in AIL schools, centers and post-secondary programs. 27, 619 Afghans (more than 70% female) have received teacher training or capacity-building training. AIL has supported 13 clinics serving 998,088 patients and providing health education to 1,520,374 women and children. Overall 6,778,026 Afghan lives have been directly impacted by AIL programs.
With the help of your donations, during the first 6 months of 2009, AIL has been able to:
--Provide education to 7,864 women and girls.
--Provide educational workshops to 1,343 women and girls.
--Provided healthcare to 44,838 women and girls at AIL clinics.
During a recent workshop at an AIL center, one of the participants shared this story with the center staff: “I was illiterate and my husband had graduated from high school. My husband’s mother told me that I should learn to read by participating in a literacy course, but that I must take the class at a center where there would not be any men in my class. I found the AIL center and decided to take classes here with my sisters. My husband’s mother has never come here with me, until today. She stood outside the class and watched as our Life Skills class was taught by a man, and I worried about what I should say to her. I began to relax as I realized that my teachers were good and moral people, and decided that I must be patient and after class I would talk to my husband’s mother. When I came out of class, I saw her standing there and I shared with her all of the things I had learned. She told me that she could hear that I was being taught well, and that she would like to join our class.”
A woman taking classes in AIL’s beautician courses shared her thoughts with the AIL staff. “One of my friends told me about the high quality of education you could receive at AIL’s center in our town. I liked the beauty parlor, and was admitted to this course. Since I started learning this skill, I have made many friends at the center and in my community. Besides just making friends, I am also learning about what kind of make-up and hairstyles different women like to have. After graduating from the beautician course, I opened my own business. Day by day, I become even more interested in my skill and began my business by doing hair and make-up for poor women for free. This skill commands a good income in my community and I have been able to buy the necessary tools and equipment to make my beauty parlor the best it can be. I am able to help my family with my income and this is all because of the AIL center. I really appreciate AIL providing life changing opportunities for women and girls.”
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.
Some of the stories AIL hears from women are about little things that make a big difference for the individual woman. We have one such example from a woman studying literacy in one of AIL’s centers. When asked if she had a particularly happy memory that came from learning to read, she replied, “Yes. Before I would go places and could not read anything, but now I can. I went to the doctor with my sister-in-law and I read the name of the doctor for her. There was a woman there who could not read and asked me if I knew which doctor was the heart doctor. I read the board with the names of the doctors until I found the heart doctor and guided the woman to the correct doctor. She prayed for me. I was very happy and it is an unforgettable memory for me.”
In 2008 the Afghan Institute of Learning supported 46 learning centers in Herat, Mazar, Bamiyan and Kabul, Afghanistan and in Peshawar, Pakistan. These centers served a total of 23,750 Afghan women, men and children in classes ranging from pre-school to university students. These centers have had a huge impact on the lives of the students since the students have no other alternatives for receiving a quality education.
During 2008, one of AIL's WLC's reached a milestone-- its first class of girls studying in the 9th grade. This is a truly remarkable story as this group of initially illiterate girls from a very traditional, rural, conservative area in Afghanistan began studying with AIL 7 years ago and have continued their studies until now.. Here is one of the girl's stories:
"I am from a poor and narrow-minded family that does not allow their daughters to go outside the home to study. My father has always told me that he did not have enough money to pay the fees to send me to school; he barely had enough money to feed me and pay our rent. Besides, he said, if he allowed me to go to school my relatives and neighbors would say that he was not zealous enough since no one allows their daughters to go to school. One day my neighbor told me that there was a center that teaches women and girls and that you can learn a great deal from this school without paying any fees. At first I was really excited until I realized that I was 13 and might have sit in a lower class with younger students. When I was finally allowed to go to the center, I saw that many older women and girls were attending the school. Now I am happy because I can read, and write. I pray 5 times a day to those who open centers like this for women and older girls."
Since the establishment of the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) the goal has been to help women improve their situation in life. Following is a story from one of AIL’s Women’s Learning Centers (WLC) that exemplifies the changes that AIL can make in Afghan women’s lives.
When AIL student Rizagul was a young girl, her father was put in prison by the Taliban regime where he was tortured and eventually died leaving behind Rizagul as well as her young brother and her unwell, elderly mother.
Four years ago, Rizagul came to one of AIL’s rural WLC’s in Herat province and began taking various classes, including literacy and sewing. After two years at the center, she was able to gain admission to a regular school at grade level 4, a feat which might have taken 4 years in a regular school, if it happened at all. Even after gaining admission to the regular school, Rizagul continued to take extra courses after school at the center. Unfortunately, the center was closed due to the poor security situation in the region and Rizagul could no longer take the extra courses she had come to enjoy.
A short time ago, an AIL teacher saw Rizagul at a wedding ceremony in their village. Rizagul could not control her emotions and tears rolled down her cheeks as she told her teacher, “You and AIL were the best thing for me, and I will never, never forget your encouragement and all of the hard work that you did for me.” She added, “I can now read in Arabic, I know how to sew and I am a student in grade 6. What I am is because of the AIL center.”
She also said that she is sewing dresses to make money for her family and that she has so much business that she has to turn some people away. She is making a good living, and is able to improve her family’s economic situation with her sewing skills.
Rizagul also told the teacher, “With the advice that the center supervisor wrote in my ‘memory notebook’ (try to learn, work hard for a better future and pray for your future) I am sure that I will go toward a better future.”
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