In a small, workshop off the main road leading to Masaya, Nicaragua, Francis Cano Gutierrez sits behind a bench and every few seconds, she kicks the flywheel with her bare feet to keep the clay spinning as she shapes it with her hands. It's hard not to break a sweat; it's August and the heat and humidity are in the 90s.
Francis works seven days a week making intricately-designed bowls, plates and vases - a trade she began learning when she was 11 years old. She comes from a long line of strong and hardworking women, but the effects of silent chronic diseases such as breast and cervical cancer have devastated her family.
Her grandmother, the matriarch of the family, died of a massive hemorrhage from cervical cancer. Less than six months ago, Francis' aunt died from the same disease. Because of a lack of education and access to health care, their cancers went undetected until it was too late.
Unfortunately, their stories are all too common not only for women in Nicaragua - the 2nd poorest country in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti - but for women across Latin America and around the world.
Regular, convenient access to health services can dramatically reduce both the rates of mortality and the costs of treatment of chronic diseases in low-income populations. This can be very difficult to implement, but it is possible.
This week, when the global health world is focused on the Millennium Development Goals, Pro Mujer joined a panel on the frontline health worker to talk about what we are doing to bridge the gap.
A new model for delivering market-based health solutions
In 2009, we embarked on an ambitious plan to develop a new health model that balances social impact with commercial viability. The pilot was successfully launched in Nicaragua in 2010 and is now being rolled out in Peru with the support of our partners, like Johnson & Johnson. It provides universal access to health and financial training and basic health screenings, as well as an optional health package that combines services that are both high-impact and in high-demand.
The package includes unlimited access to a physician, counseling, dental services, PAP and other laboratory tests, and services can also be transferred to family members. In fact, these services helped Francis' mother and sister.
"My mother is a breast cancer survivor," says Francis. "My sister - who is also a Pro Mujer client - was diagnosed with an early stage cancerous lesion on her cervix. She was reluctant [to get screened] but thanks to the health education workshops...she did it and it was detected in time."
Pro Mujer delivers its services - small loans, savings and insurance, business and empowerment training, and high-quality, low-cost primary healthcare - through communal banks, groups of approximately 20 women who guarantee one another's loans and provide support.
As a result of the financial services we provide, we have regular access to more than 260,000 people in Argentina, Bolivia, Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru, some of whom are at high risk of developing chronic diseases, including diabetes, cancer and hypertension, among other diseases
What makes this model so unique is that outreach is performed by 744 Pro Mujer credit officers, who deliver basic health education, promote the use of health services and sell high-impact health packages. In total, this team is supported by our more than 1,800 colleagues across Latin America. Our credit officers lead health and human development workshops prior to facilitating communal bank repayment/disbursement meetings. These meetings are often hosted in Pro Mujer centers - safe and supportive environments designed for women.
For clients, this delivery system is "one-stop shopping." This life-saving health package costs clients $27 a year in Nicaragua and $43 a year in Peru, which they can pay for by making small payments through savings, loans or cash. It also provides extra value to clients as it features discount coupons for specialists, additional treatments, medications, grocery stores, gas for cooking stoves and even beauty salons. For Pro Mujer, it's an efficient and cost-effective way to have positive impact in a financially-sustainable manner.
This life-saving health package costs clients $27 a year in Nicaragua and $43 a year in Peru, which they can pay for by making small payments through savings, loans or cash. It also provides extra value to clients as it features discount coupons for specialists, additional treatments, medications, grocery stores, gas for cooking stoves and even beauty salons.
A Promising Future
The feedback we've received from clients in Nicaragua and Peru has been overwhelmingly positive. In fact, we've already exceeded our first year sales target to reach sustainability. We believe our health care model will be instrumental in advancing our goal of empowering women like Francis to break the cycle of poverty.
Twelve years ago, a small loan of $126 dollars and the support of her family helped Francis get her business off the ground. Today, she employs five people. Not only is she helping her family, she is also helping other members of her community.
"As a woman, I've achieved my dream," Francis says proudly. "I have my own home, my own business that provides a source of income for my family and a job that I can do and be a multifaceted mother, wife and businesswoman."
In the day-to-day of what we as an organization do, Francis is the real hero. Pro Mujer provides the opportunities, but women like Francis take those opportunities and shape their own destinies. Her story of transformation inspires all of us to continue our work so that many more women across Latin America can become more financially-independent, healthy and realize their potential as agents of change.