“Reach out to others and give a gift to yourself.”
Sakena Yacoobi, founder and executive director of the Afghan Institute of Learning, urged the advanced degree graduates of Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California to “reach out to others and give a gift to yourself” in the process in her 2010 Commencement speech. She has been a model of such action since 1995. Under her leadership, the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) has delivered education and health services to over 7.1 million Afghan women, children and men. In appreciation of her work, SCU honored her with an honorary Doctor of Education Honoris Causa degree.
“Health and literacy are keys to human rights, empowerment and self sufficiency,” says Dr Yacoobi, Mann Award winner.
Less than a week later, Dr. Yacoobi was at the Global Health Conference in Washington, DC to receive the 2010 Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights established to honor the late Jonathan Mann and to call attention to the vital links between health and human rights. The Award is bestowed annually on an individual who shows an overwhelming commitment to health and human rights, often at great personal danger.
Sakena Yacoobi considers access to health care and education as human rights and takes a holistic approach to advancing health and human rights, particularly for women. Growing up in Afghanistan, Dr. Yacoobi saw firsthand the damage that inequity and a lack of education and lack of access to health care can inflict upon women and children. After receiving her undergraduate and masters degree in health in the U.S., she returned to help her fellow countrywomen. As the Taliban were closing schools for women and girls in Afghanistan, Dr. Yacoobi founded the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) in 1995 to fight oppressive traditions that left women uneducated and put their lives at risk.
Dr. Yacoobi and AIL believe that “all Afghan women can be catalysts for change in Afghanistan. With an education that teaches them how to think and to educate others, as well as an awareness of their human rights, women can create a better future for all Afghans… we know that educated women will educate families, communities, and the nation to bring lasting peace.” And the same is true for health. Health education is integral to all of AIL’s activities, as knowledge about health empowers individuals to care for themselves and their families.
Believing that access to education is a basic human right that should be available to all women and girls, AIL began by providing literacy, primary and secondary education, university classes, and teacher training for women across Afghanistan. AIL pioneered the concept of Women’s Learning Centers in Afghanistan, which teach literacy, health education, human rights education, religious study, and income-generating skills. AIL was the first organization to offer human rights and leadership training to Afghan women. AIL has integrated health programs into its work and now operates seven clinics that provide prenatal care, safe delivery, well-baby care, immunizations, and primary-care services. AIL also operates mobile medical outreach campaigns, trains and supports community health workers, and developed a nurse/midwife/health educator course that graduates some of the most highly sought-after healthcare providers in Afghanistan.
AIL currently serves 350,000 women and children each year in Afghanistan and Pakistan and has provided education, training and health services to over 7.1 million Afghans since 1995. AIL is run by women and operated by women: of its 480 employees, more than 70% are women.
Every student in every one of AIL’s Women’s Learning Center s, every patient in AIL’s seven health clinics, and every family served through AIL’s Community Health Worker program receives basic health education along with health services and has opportunities to receive culturally sensitive additional “healthy families” training. AIL also provides 2-5 day workshops in reproductive health, HIV/AIDS, self immolation (rarely done by others for security reasons) and general health. This program targets young women, ages 10-25 years old, so that they have the knowledge they need early enough to prevent the health problems of their predecessors.
Dr. Yacoobi’s approach to health and human rights is changing the culture of Afghanistan. Social dynamics have improved among families and neighbors as a result of the contributions healthy and educated girls and women make in their homes and communities. Under some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable, Dr. Yacoobi is rebuilding family cohesion and a culture that respects the rights of each individual.
Though at times weary from the many demands put upon her, Sakena has no plans to slow down. “There is so much that needs to be done to help my people,” she says. “I have deep hope for Afghanistan, and I am proud of the women who get up in the morning, say goodbye to their family, and go to work… go to learning… because they know that they must learn. The only way they can stop problems is to learn. They are learning, and they are not afraid.”
Dr. Yacoobi’s vision is to transform the way that Afghans regard human rights for women and for all Afghans. She firmly believes that when the war is over, the Afghan people will be self-sufficient and a people who respect everyone’s rights.