Female empowerment, education and community were central themes during the Shanta Foundation’s annual fall fundraiser Wednesday night at Riverbend Ranch.
The Durango nonprofit helps remote, impoverished Myanmarese and Zambian villages out of poverty.
Wednesday’s event featured a panel of women leaders from the Durango area and abroad, including Shanta Foundation co-founder Khaing Zar Oo, also known as Nge Nge; Laurie Meininger, board member of the Community Foundation serving Southwest Colorado; Durango City Council member Gilda Yazzie; and Candace Carson of the Coutts & Clark Western Foundation.
The speakers shared their insights about what female empowerment means and how it plays a part in addressing issues around the world. They also shared anecdotes of female empowerment they’ve experienced in their own lives.
Nge Nge said women’s groups established in Myanmarese villages instilled confidence in women and demonstrated to dominant male leadership that women have much to contribute socially and economically through leadership roles.
Yazzie shared examples of how Diné culture raises men and women as equals and co-contributors to their communities, and how getting more involved in the community – such as running for city council, for example – inspired women to take charge.
Nge Nge said the Shanta Foundation takes a holistic approach to strengthening communities by giving them the initial tools and education to independently strengthen their villages’ leadership, and in turn improve their community financial situation and propel themselves to success.
The Shanta Foundation teaches leadership skills, income generation, infrastructure development and agriculture. A number of agricultural projects focus on coffee, ginger and chili, she said.
The group also provides women’s health education with the goal of empowering women and reducing instances of child marriage, which correlates with higher-risk pregnancies, gender-based violence and higher poverty rates, according to the Shanta Foundation.
“From that, so many villages have benefited from the projects,” Nge Nge told The Durango Herald. “Every single project, we have a sustainable approach. So even when we say goodbye, there is something there they manage. We would like to introduce this model to the whole world.”
The Shanta Foundation is launching three village partnerships in Zambia this year in an expansion of Myanmar-based efforts to lift rural villages out of poverty. The nonprofit already has 24 partner villages in Myanmar.
In 2022, the foundation graduated five villages out of its program, with 22 villages remaining. It gained 365 women’s empowerment group members. It worked on 16 various infrastructure projects, including libraries, roads, preschools and one water system and helped villages collectively raise $139,700 in community bank funds, according to the Shanta Foundation.
When asked how empowering women helps address global issues such as climate change and war, Carson said increasing a poor mother’s income “almost immediately” improves her children’s nutrition and likelihood of going to school.
“Part of my belief system is that everything is connected to everything else … It’s like throwing a little pebble in a pond and a ring is going to come out,” she said. “Who are the poor people in Myanmar? Women and children. Who knows best what the (struggles) are? Not rich people, or men who have more access to good jobs. It’s women. And so we have to ask the people who are experiencing these issues.”
She said 42% of Zambian brides are under the age of 18. Empowering women in education and leadership reduces infant mortality, maternal morbidity, education of children and socioeconomic status.
“(Women’s) empowerment works in reducing extreme poverty in the world. And the importance of empowering women politically and economically, we want to address the most pressing issues facing our world,” Shanta Foundation Executive Director Wade Griffith said in his opening remarks.
He said community banking is a key aspect of the Shanta Foundation’s model because it lets villages take control of their own futures.
Rural Myanmarese and Zambian farmers borrow money for seeds and fertilizer just like farmers across the globe. But they often don’t have access to bank loans, only loan sharks, Griffith said.
Interest on a per-month basis runs at 5% to 10% of loans. If a farmer’s crop doesn’t get the rain it needs, they end up with no other option than to sell their property.
But community banks allow villagers to set their own interest rates, usually much lower rates than 5% to 10%, which helps farmers earn more profit gradually saves more money to fund public schools, libraries and infrastructure projects, Griffith said.
A fifth panelist, Shanta Foundation Zambia Program Manager Janet Nyoni, was scheduled to speak at the fundraiser on Wednesday. However, the United States denied her application for a travel visa. The panel kicked off with a brief video featuring Nyoni describing how sexual education and information about global matters such as climate change are needed in Zambian villages.
Nge Nge said people can support the Shanta Foundation with donations by visiting its website at shantafoundation.org.