October 11 Is International Girls Day: A Day to Celebrate Girls and Education

Four teenage girls studying with a teacher standing beside them
Four teenage girls studying with a teacher standing beside them

Sarah Fane, founder of Afghan Connection spoke earlier this year to boys at the Allen-Stevenson school, a private school in Manhattan, on the virtues of building schools and educating girls in Afghanistan. The elementary school boys, smartly dressed in collared shirts, listened with undivided attention as Fane began her rapid-speed presentation on her over 20-year involvement with Afghanistan.

Fane, who lives in England, was on her first fundraising trip to America. Apart from meeting donors, she visited schools in Manhattan, San Francisco and Washington to foster awareness about her project among school children in American.

With the help of photographs projected onto a screen, Fane took students on an introductory tour of the political and economic landscape of Afghanistan. On her initial trip as a medical student in 1987, she worked in obstetrics where she was overwhelmed to see to see hundreds of women show up at her clinic. Women in Afghanistan are custom bound to see only female doctors. On subsequent trips back, during the reign of the Taliban, and working as a doctor with the war wounded, Fane noticed the complete ruination of the country on all fronts. Kabul, the capital had no hospitals and was hard to access by road and the women were living in medieval conditions.

"The Taliban kept religious laws prohibiting women from going to school, working, listening to TV and pop music... I always find hope in everything I do in life but I did not find hope in Afghanistan," said Fane.

But the hospitality of the people who invited her into their homes with food and shelter touched her and she decided to give something back.

Returning to England Fane, with the help of friends, raised $5 million that was used towards medical work. They sent over necessary equipment, vaccinations and helped refurbish clinics and hospitals. But the desire for education touched her. On trips she noticed children sometimes walking three hours to attend school.

"In Afghanistan, kids know that if they get a chance to go to school they might get out of this awful life of poverty," said Fane.

These observations prompted Fane in 2002 to set up Afghan Connection, a charitable nonprofit that aims to build schools, set up teacher training centers, and teach cricket in Afghanistan. Her foundation which partners with the Swedish Committee, has to date built 32 schools that currently educates 30,000 children. Her belief is that education can turn the country around.

"International troops have been in Afghanistan for 10 years and billions of dollars have been put into Afghanistan but what is our legacy? We have lost a lot of soldiers, caused civilian deaths and put in a government that is corrupt. There are some good things that have happened but the legacy isn't really positive. So why not leave a legacy that is education, because in the end it will be the educated masses that fight against the extremists," said Fane.

In addition, to further understanding between schools and countries, Fane began a Twin School program that partners schools in England with schools in Afghanistan. She now has some 20 schools in England, including the elite Eton College, participating in the program.

Unlike Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea, whose Afghan charity was plagued by accusations of financial mismanagement, Fane said her operations are completely transparent and audited. She maintains an Afghan blog that is regularly updated about projects and activities.

"We have been going for 10 years and are ready to expand. We don't just build a school and leave but we get completely involved in the community," said Fane.

The reception Fane received at Allen-Stevenson from both students and teachers was overwhelmingly positive. The boys asked questions about how much money was needed to start a school there and teachers wanted to know if they could volunteer and teach at some of the schools over the summer. Her answer was that it costs about $150,000 to $230,000 to build a school that would educate 3,000 children in Afghanistan. She encouraged teachers to contact her about teaching opportunities.

At the conclusion of Fane's presentation, David Trover, headmaster of Allen-Stevenson, remarked on the value of education.

"It is nice for our boys to know that to learn to read is precious which many children in the world don't have. Here it seems to be force-fed," said Trover.

At Trinity School, Manhattan's other notable private school, Fane brought along Zarguna Kargar, a BBC Afghan reporter and author. She shared her experiences of growing up in Kabul. They spent the day with members of the after school club -- Girl's Learn International -- which aims to advocate and raise funds for girl's issues. Ginn Norris, the club's advisor said that Trinity raised $400 for a girl to be educated in their partner school in Kenya.

On International Girls Day, Norris said that some of the girls in the club would wear Afghan Connection shirts to mark their solidarity and raise awareness for girls around the world.

"It costs only $55 a year for a girl to go to school in Afghanistan, which is so inexpensive. It's unbelievable," said Norris.