Out of the ashes

After years of oppression, women will be the catalyst to shaping a peaceful, prosperous Afghanistan, says Sakena Yacoobi. But first, they need education

For decades, women in Afghanistan have existed on the margins of society. Isolated from family by child marriage, denied an education and held hostage by oppressive cultural beliefs, Afghan girls and women are among the world’s most illiterate, poverty-stricken and vulnerable people.

The reality of their lives breaks my heart. But it also fuels my passion to empower them, and that journey begins with education. For more than 25 years, I have laboured to prepare Afghanistan’s girls to take part in the creation of a better society, and to realise their full potential.

Afghan women are enduringly resilient and uniquely placed to influence the next generation

As a teenager, I received a good education in the US, which aided me in establishing the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL), a women-led NGO born in the refugee camps of Pakistan. Now, more than ever, I believe my country’s future hinges on the education of women and girls.

Afghan women are enduringly resilient and uniquely placed to influence the next generation. Against the backdrop of war, the chaos of fractured government and social infrastructure, and the injustices imposed by a male-dominated culture, Afghan women have already overcome huge obstacles. They have survived war and displacement. They have begun to re-establish stable home lives. They are focused on their role as primary caregivers for young girls and boys, leaving them best placed to raise a new generation of forward-thinking leaders.

A quality education will give these strong, intelligent Afghan women the tools they need to be better wives, parents, money managers and administrators of their family’s health and wellbeing. As they develop critical thinking skills, they find new ways of dealing with the issues they face.

Their innate resourcefulness in problem solving is heightened by an ability to ask questions and share ideas with peers. Education affirms their instinctive sense of justice and equality, which empowers them to send both sons and daughters to school.

With the opportunity to learn marketable skills, an Afghan woman begins to generate income for her family, broadening her expectations for a better lifestyle. Her husband is happy for her help and becomes supportive of her efforts to continue learning, even encouraging her to attend university.

In this way, the educated Afghan woman demonstrates to her children both the value of learning, and the potential women have to engage in wider society as equals alongside men. Every day she models a more holistic role of women in family life, business and culture.

Afghan women are just as critical outside of the family as government leaders, wielding influence in all spheres of society. Women already know what it is to manage bare-bones budgets and to find inventive, yet workable, solutions to seemingly impossible situations.

Knowing first-hand how gender and ethnic inequality demeans us all, women can influence officials to enforce existing human rights laws. Because they understand that joblessness drives poverty and violence, female leaders can advocate to remove the obstacles to entrepreneurship.

Women must be included around the table of Afghanistan’s decision-makers: they instinctively look for peaceable answers to the problems at hand. With education, women can capitalise on their intuitive nature to build a community, rather than destroy.

Afghan women don’t yet see themselves as trailblazers. But once educated, given role models and furnished with the tools to think through issues, they are eager to serve as leaders.

We need to shine a light on these women, to give others the confidence to step forward. To give just one example: during a 10-day AIL leadership course, two illiterate Afghan women were able to organise their peers to lobby against a government plan to move their refugee camp to a new location. A new solution was found, allowing their community to remain.

Another woman, a government employee – who did not see herself as a leader before the workshop – developed a project for a group of women beggars. It not only converted a war-torn space into a beautiful garden, but gave the women dignity and a way to earn an income.

These stories came to life after a short workshop. Just imagine the possibilities if this kind of education were open to girls and women across Afghanistan, from preschool to university.

Educating women for literacy is vital, but even more so is giving them the tools to shape Afghanistan’s future. With help, women will be the beating heart of efforts to restore our nation’s dignity, and build a peaceable and prosperous Afghanistan for generations to come.

About the writer

Sakena Yacoobi is CEO of the Afghan Institute of Learning, which taught 3,000 girls in secret during Taliban rule. Today, AIL reaches 400,000 Afghans a year. She is the 2015 WISE Prize for Education laureate, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, and co-founder of the nonprofit Creating Hope International.