We’ve been privileged to know Sakena since honoring her with the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship in 2006. Over the years, we have marked her extraordinary educational work in Afghanistan, primarily with women but also, more recently, with men, too.
Those of us familiar with Sakena’s story know just how stunningly effective she is. From the moment she decided to leave a comfortable position at the University of Michigan and her family in order to return to the country of her birth, Sakena has never looked back. The network of women’s learning centers she has created deliver comprehensive health and educational services to the country’s women, while a parallel system of more than 300 educational learning centers trains thousands of teachers and is vital to reconstructing Afghanistan’s educational infrastructure.
But Sakena is more than an effective executive: she is the consummate leader–courageous, fiercely committed to those she serves, and tireless in her efforts to empower the people she knows and loves.
On more than one occasion, she has put her life on the line. In one memorable instance, her car was stopped on the road north of Kabul by 19 Taliban armed with Kalashnikov rifles. Sakena recalls being terrified. Where others might have run, however, she stood her ground. Why? It was in understanding her obligation as a leader to “hold it together” when she realized the opportunity to open dialogue with her interrogators, who demanded to know more about the educational programs she was offering for Afghan women. “But what about us?” she recalls her challengers asking.
The moment was a transformational one for Sakena, and for the Institute. Today, she understands that change will not come to Afghanistan without the country’s men, many of whom now stand with her in their commitment to transforming educational opportunity for all the country’s citizens. As for those 19 Taliban fighters who held up her car that day–well, they now serve among Sakena’s and the Institute’s most committed protectors.
We salute the WISE Prize Selection Jury for making this year’s award to Sakena Yacoobi, an inspiring leader and a profoundly important social entrepreneur working to create a new future for Afghanistan.