Education is the surest path to world peace.

Twenty years ago, in 1996, Central Asia Institute was founded on this principle. Educating the children of villages torn by war, poverty, and isolation is the best way to solve the conflict and provide opportunity.

Twenty years ago we began work to help fund our first school in Pakistan. Today, CAI has initiated over 450 projects in remote, often conflict-ridden areas in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan. Imagine creating 450 projects in historically volatile areas occupied by many groups with varying agendas. We had to pioneer our own process, forge relationships, and create a network across these different regions with one common goal – to bring education to children, especially the girls.

CAI educates boys and girls. But it’s educating the girls that really make the difference as they share their knowledge with their children, families, and communities. Access to education in these rural, often high-conflict areas is non-existent or restricted for many reasons, particularly for girls. In many communities,girls education central asia institute there are no schools. In others, there are no teachers. Often, children can’t afford the required uniforms and school supplies, so they are unable to attend. Each community brings a unique set of circumstances, and it’s our job to work with the local community to untangle these needs and address each one so education is attainable and sustainable.

“We’ve worked diligently to serve the children and communities of Central Asia, and are proud of what we’ve accomplished,” CAI Executive Director Jim Thaden reflects. “We have come a long way in the last 20 years, and CAI is committed to impacting the region for years to come by investing in the education of children, particularly girls, which we believe is the way to a more peaceful and secure world.”

According to the United Nations, more than 103 million children lack basic literacy skills.  Those children – more than half of whom are girls – will enter adulthood unable to read and write, develop their potential, achieve their goals and participate fully in society. Various studies show that educating a girl to at least the fifth-grade level has a profound impact: girls marry later, infant and maternal mortality drop, household income rises, and basic health improves. We have always believed in the African Proverb that states, “If you educate a girl, you educate a nation, you educate a generation.”

It’s for these reasons that we promote literacy and education in Central Asia – with a special emphasis on women and girls – by offering programs the community needs. Our efforts focus on funding schools, scholarships, and teacher training, as well as healthcare related projects.

Through these past twenty years the greatest and unexpected rewards are witnessing people from around the world connecting to this dream of educating women and girls.  It is especially profound to witness the deep compassion children have for their counter-parts halfway around the world. For this reason we created the Pennies for Peace program, a free service-learning program for global outreach to children, has conducted more than 7,000 fundraising campaigns, raising in excess of $7 million.

Each year the number of villages we reach grows, and women and children who may not have had a chance are learning to read and write and are beginning to dream of a future. In 2014, CAI built eight schools, 85 percent of its annual spending went to overseas education programs, and more than 100,000 students were enrolled in CAI’s programs.

While we take this quick pause to celebrate all the triumphs and learning moments that make up the past twenty years, our work is far from finished. People internally displaced by conflict in Afghanistan doubled to 1.2 million in just three years. The withdrawal of US troops and the continuing violence will pose additional challenges to efforts to provide education to children in Central Asia, rendering CAI’s work even more critical.

Thank you for being a part of the CAI family. We hope you will continue to be a part of our story as we look ahead to the next twenty years of peace through education.

Watch: 20 Years of Faces & Places

A special slideshow of faces and places from the past 20 years.