Dr. Sakena Yacoobi, Rahman speak on advancing the status of women in Afghanistan

By Mikayla Mehle

When Sakena Yacoobi arrived in the United States in the 1970’s, many of the immigrant women she met did not know how to read or write and did not know basic health precautions. “When I saw those faces, it was, for me, impossible not to help,” Yacoobi said. “Those women needed the same opportunities I had.”

Yacoobi founded the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL), which was a major topic of discussion during her visit to Macalester on Feb. 3 in Weyerhauser Chapel. Yacoobi spoke along with fellow humanitarian Anica Rahman, who is the president of Americans for United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). The UNFPA is an international source of assistance for women, which provides health care and promotes women’s rights. Americans for UNFPA is a non-partisan, charitable organization that is funded by private foundations and individual donors.

“My dedication to improve women’s rights comes from my background,” Rahman said. “I saw the disparity in women’s rights in Afghanistan – women run the show at home, but the world didn’t treat them in the way that they deserved.”

Rahman joined Americans for UNFPA in order to improve education, health care, and women’s rights in Afghanistan.

Rahman emphasized that her goal is “to ensure that all women have equality, health and dignity because those are our basic rights.”

Her involvement with the UNFPA has helped raise the status of women socially and economically. As a result of her work, over 500 women receive family planning every year. The UNFPA also provides seed money to support Yacoobi’s work with the AIL.

During the talk, both Rhaman and Yacoobi expressed some frustrations with the lack of US support for the UNFPA. Congress allocates $34 million annually to the UNFPA but the Bush Administration blocked the funds claiming there were political reasons. Rhaman hopes that the Obama Administration will reinstate funding for UNFPA.

Despite lack of US support, Yacoobi continues her work with the AIL to spread education and health care to women in need.

“It’s my duty to reach out to other women who are suffering, because I have the ability,” said Yacoobi, “I saw so many women suffer and die in front of my eyes as a child. I wanted to be a doctor to help women.”

Yacoobi came to the US in the 1970s for education, and was the first in her family to receive a college degree. When she returned to Afghanistan in 1995, she saw 6 million people on the Pakistani border in refugee camps, many of whom were women between the ages of 14 and 21.

Yacoobi’s goals are not only to provide education for the women of Afghanistan, but also to provide them with health information and health care.

Yacoobi said one of the biggest challenges that faced her when she decided to set up schools for women was the lack of support for women’s education in Afghanistan.

“Even prior to the Taliban occupation, almost everyone was against education,” Yacoobi said.

Additionally, the current situation in Afghanistan makes it difficult for the program to survive. In the last two years, the work of the AIL has been detrimentally affected by the war due to roadblocks and suicide bombs that have made transportation and security difficult.

While the AIL works with the government on health care and clinics, the program is dependant on donations to survive. Yacoobi started the AIL with $20,000 of her own money and currently relies on funding from the UNFPA and the donations she receives after speaking at symposiums to keep her programs running.

“There are almost no low income countries [where the] government alone can provide health care and education,” said Rahman. “We would need $2 billion to meet the target in Afghanistan alone.”

With increased financial support, Yacoobi has been able to increase teacher training and expand the program, which now reaches 350,000 women and children and graduates 20,000 students annually.

“Women want to be involved, have good jobs and important roles in society,” said Yacoobi, whose program educates women from children to adults of 50 years of age or more.

“One woman went to school with her granddaughter and they did their homework side-by-side,” she recalled.

Maggie Magee ’12 attended the talk because she has an interest in human rights in general.

“This is an enormous issue, globally,” Magee said. “This story was very inspiring.[Yacoobi] portrayed the enthusiasm of the women she was describing so well.”

“I’m very inspired by the women and students who went out in the cold to come to my talk,” Yacoobi said. “I work for you to help the women of Afghanistan.