Sakena Yacoobi (born Herat, Afghanistan) is the executive director of the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL), an Afghan women-led NGO she founded in 1995. She is well known for her work for the rights of children, women and education. She has earned international recognition for her work and in 2005 was jointly nominated with 99 other women for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Afghan Institute of Learning
The organization was established to provide teacher training to Afghan women, to support education for boys and girls, and to provide health education to women and children. Under Sakena’s leadership, AIL has established itself as a groundbreaking, visionary organization which works at the grassroots level and empowers women and communities to find ways to bring education and health services to rural and poor urban girls, women and other poor and disenfranchised Afghans. AIL was the first organization to offer human rights and leadership training to Afghan women. AIL supported 80 underground home schools for 3000 girls in Afghanistan after the Taliban closed girls’ schools in the 1990s. AIL was the first organization that opened Women’s Learning Centers for Afghan women—a concept now copied by many organizations throughout Afghanistan. AIL has trained over 10,000 teachers since its inception.
Born in Herat, Afghanistan, Sakena came to the United States in the 1970s, earning a bachelor's degree in biological sciences from the University of the Pacific in 1977  and a master's degree in public health from Loma Linda University. Before returning in 1990 to work with her people, Sakena was a professor at D’Etre University and a health consultant. While working with refugees in Pakistan, she published eight Dari-language teacher training guides. During that time, she also served as the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR) delegate working on the education portion of the United Nation’s Rehabilitation Plan for Afghanistan.
Using their grassroots strategies and holistic approach, AIL now serves 350,000 women and children each year through its training programs, Educational Learning Centers, schools and clinics in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Since 1996, over 7,700,000 Afghans have benefited from AIL’s education and health programs.
Sakena Yacoobi is also co-founder and Vice President of Creating Hope International, a Michigan-based non-profit organization. She is a member of the Board of Directors of Global Fund for Women. She is an advisor to the Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation. She is advisor to Women’s Learning Partnership (WLP) and a member of WLP’s Roaming Institute for Women’s Leadership. She is a member and past steering committee member of the Agency Co-ordinating Body for Afghan Relief.
In addition to her work with AIL, Sakena has been a panelist and speaker on education for women and children at a number of international conferences, including the Clinton Global Initiative, California Governor’s Conference on Women and Families, the Central Eurasian Studies Society conference at Harvard University, the One World Forum at Warwick University in England, Association for Women in Development in Bangkok, and the International Institute for Peace Education in South Korea, Turkey, Greece and Costa Rica. She has been instrumental in focusing attention on the urgent need for women’s rights and education and healthcare in Afghanistan.
Sakena and AIL have received international recognition for their efforts on behalf of Afghan women and children. In 2001, Sakena was awarded the Bill Graham award from the Rex Foundation in recognition of the efforts of the Afghan Institute of Learning to assist children who are victims of political oppression and human rights violations. AIL and Dr. Yacoobi are co-recipients of the 2003 Peacemakers in Action Award of the Tanenbaum Center for Inter-religious Understanding and the 2004 Women’s Rights Prize of the Peter Gruber Foundation. Sakena and AIL have received recognition of service awards from the Ministry of Education in Herat, Afghanistan, the district governments of Mir Bacha Kot, Shakardara, Kalakan, Farza, and sixth district Kabul Afghanistan and from numerous Afghan organizations. In 2005, Professor Yacoobi was awarded the Democracy Award from the National Endowment for Democracy. Sakena was among the 1,000 women nominated to jointly receive the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize. In 2006, Sakena received the Citizen Leader Award from the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California and the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship. In January 2007, Sakena was inducted as a Senior Fellow, the first Ashoka Fellow from Afghanistan. In May 2007, Sakena was awarded an honorary doctorate of laws by the University of the Pacific for her leadership and human rights work for women and children. In December 2007, Sakena received the 2007 Gleitsman International Activist Award at Harvard University. In June 2008, Sakena received an honorary Doctor of Humanitarian Service degree from Loma Linda University, recognizing her distinguished contribution to society. In February 2009, Sakena received the 2009 Americans for UNFPA Board of Advocates Award for the Health and Dignity of Women. Sakena was cited by Americans for UNPFA as a tireless advocate for Afghan women, who has increased the literacy and improved the health of thousands of Afghan women and girls despite decades of armed conflict and a ban on girls education during Taliban rule. In March 2009, Sakena received the Henry R. Kravis Prize in Nonprofit Leadership for her outstanding work. In 2010, Sakena received the Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights, and the Asia Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award given by the Schwab Foundation. Yacoobi was one of the 1000 women worldwide who was collectively nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. She was elected as an Ashoka Fellow in 2006, recognizing her leading work as a social entrepreneur. In 2007, Yacoobi received the Gleitsman International Activist Award from the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard's JFK School of Government.
For web reference: Yacoobi received the Gruber Prize for Women’s Rights in 2004 and the Democracy Award from the National Endowment for Democracy in 2005. AIL has also received a 2006 Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship. In 2009, she received the Kravis Prize for her work in establishing schools for young girls in Afghanistan. In 2012, she was awarded the Worlds Children's Prize for her work in fighting for the rights of young children to be educated. In 2013, she was awarded the $1 million Opus Prize for unsung heroes.
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