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National Post, by Alia Dharssi:  TORONTO — When Sakena Yacoobi ran 80 underground schools for 3,000 girls in Afghanistan under the Taliban, some teachers hid books in sacks of wheat and rice to avoid detection.

“It is very hard to operate a school where the students cannot be seen,” says Yacoobi, who is known as Afghanistan’s “mother of education.”

“It was through those procedures, innovation and creativity that we were successful.”

After the Taliban seized power in the mid-1990s and forbade girls from attending school, hiding books was among the more straightforward logistical challenges Yacoobi dealt with to get the secret schools, which were in people’s homes and saw 100 to 150 students per day, up and running.

The children were typically brought by their parents and would enter the schools at intervals, two or three at a time, rather than pouring in at once. Some girls even disguised themselves as boys.

Of course, as a leader, I cannot cry in front of people, but there are times that I weep and weep

The students couldn’t talk to one another outside the school or take books home for the night. Meanwhile, the teachers carefully controlled when they came and left. With the help of a multi-grade teaching system developed by Yacoobi and her colleagues, one teacher would teach students from Grades One to Eight in the same classroom.

“These were hard things because any time that you had a group of people gathering together for education, it would be really attacked,” she explains.

Earlier this month, Yacoobi was awarded the WISE Prize for Education at the World Innovation Summit for Education in Qatar for more than two decades of efforts to advance education in Afghanistan, often while risking her own life. She was honoured with a gold medal and US$500,000.

Yacoobi, who was born in Afghanistan, studied and worked in public health in the United States as a refugee in the mid-1980s, but she was desperate to return to Afghanistan and help advance women’s rights — an issue that had bothered her growing up. It was too risky at the time, so she moved to Pakistan, home to millions of Afghan refugees, and founded her first school in a refugee camp there in 1991.

“I saw people suffering. Children were not around the camp running around,” recalls Yacoobi. “(I wanted) to bring some happiness to their lives. The issue was education for me because education changed my life.”

Within two years of starting that school, Yacoobi was managing classes for 15,000 refugee children in Pakistan. The word spread to Afghanistan and communities there asked her to help children inside the country, so, in 1995, Yacoobi founded the Afghanistan Institute of Learning (AIL), a non-profit, to support underground schools. The operation required extensive community involvement, says Yacoobi. The communities who wanted schools provided the classrooms, found teachers and sent representatives to Pakistan to smuggle books, supplies and teacher salaries into Afghanistan.

After the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Yacoobi’s students came out of hiding. “(The children) were so joyful. They were running around and going to school,” she recalls. “But there was no school … All the buildings were completely destroyed. There weren’t books. There weren’t blackboards.”

Today, with the leadership of Yacoobi, AIL runs 44 learning centres for women and children, four private schools, four clinics, a hospital and a radio station to reach people in remote parts of Afghanistan with information about education and women’s rights. It also provides training to teachers in order to boost the quality of schooling in Afghanistan. But progress is hindered by ongoing conflict within the country and dwindling foreign aid.

In 2001, there were roughly one million children, most of them boys, in school in Afghanistan. In 2013, 8.35 million students were in primary and secondary schools around the country and 39 per cent of them were girls, according to data from Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education.

Even so, the United Nations Children’s Fund reports that 3.5 million children are out of school. The quality of schools is low, the education administration is weak and corrupt, and negative attitudes toward girls’ education remain entrenched in parts of the country, says Arne Strand, deputy director of the Christian Michelsen Research Institute, a development research institute in Norway.

“You find people in Parliament that are heavily against girls education,” adds Strand, who is a political scientist with expertise in education in Afghanistan. “… The change of culture and practice takes a longer time.”

Meanwhile, security in Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries in the world, is deteriorating with the Taliban regaining hold on more territory. AIL is able to operate in only 13 of the country’s 34 provinces because of security concerns.

“We need collaboration. We need help. We need assistance,” says Yacoobi, who worries that the waning international focus on Afghanistan means there won’t be enough funding to keep improving schools or for much-needed supplies to teach children to read and write.

Bombings distract the children who are in school, others have been forced to leave their homes because of the ongoing conflict and many don’t have enough to eat, Yacoobi says. “Of course, as a leader, I cannot cry in front of people, but there are times that I weep and weep.”

Even so, Yacoobi remains optimistic about transforming Afghanistan with education in the long term and dreams of one day opening a university, as well as launching a TV station to promote women’s rights and education. If people learn to think critically and go to school, she argues, they will have better opportunities and the society will change.

“Forty years of war completely devastated, destroyed that country. But it will take another 40 years to rebuild it.”

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