After graduating in engineering from Balkh University, she secretly studied English at a time when women seeking an education risked being executed by the Taliban.
“I was studying English in a private house, without textbooks or notebooks, going in a burqa to a hidden English language course,” she says.
At first, she couldn’t get a job but things started to look up for the 35-year-old mother of two after the fall of the Taliban regime.
In 2003, she was invited to follow an entrepreneurship and handicraft course for Afghan women, held at the ILO’s International Training Centre (ITC-ILO) in Turin, Italy, with funding assistance from the Italian government.
It was the first time Yaqobi had travelled outside Afghanistan. She was keen to learn new skills, and excited at the prospect of showing that Afghan women are committed to contribute - shoulder to shoulder with Afghan men - to the sustainable development of their country.
“I learned what business is and how to do marketing and how to start a business. The interesting topic was marketing - how to find customers - and that I did very well.”
During the course they held an “Afghan night” for the public, and the 30 participants were put to the test.
The other women had brought Afghan handicrafts to sell. All Yaqobi had was a roll of henna – traditional red dye.
“I rented two chairs, and when the programme started, guests came to me and asked, ‘what is this?’ I explained and showed them how I had used henna on my hands. Then everybody came to do henna, including the media.”
Yaqobi was greatly inspired by what she learned at the ITC-ILO. She decided to become an entrepreneur, although many thought this was impossible for a woman in Afghanistan.
A huge untapped potentialUpon her return to the country, she founded Balkh Business Development Services, which focuses mainly on business planning, budgeting, English for business and information technology. She leads a team of 26 employees, and says her company is capable of managing projects worth millions of dollars.
Some 500 women have been trained by her organization, 200 of whom have started their own businesses.
“By becoming entrepreneurs we are not only creating jobs for other women but moving from traditional customs to the 21st century,” she says.
According to Hervé Berger, the ILO representative for Afghanistan, Yaqobi’s example shows “what a little quality training, combined with determination, can do to improve lives."
“Afghan women represent half of the untapped potential of Afghanistan. If even a fraction of that potential was unleashed, imagine how that would improve Afghanistan's competitiveness vis-a-vis its competitors! The future of Afghanistan will be much brighter if Afghan women are given the opportunity to enter the labour market as skilled workers.”
Yaqobi herself believes thousands of Afghan women could benefit from business training, and she hopes the ILO will be able to help more young women in the country.
Entrepreneurship training “will enable them to become more confident in making a decent life for themselves and their children, as I did for myself and so many others,” she says.
by Nangyalai Attal, ILO Kabul