Twenty years ago, a friendship between two women of different cultures and backgrounds cemented, and a bond was formed to create a women's development organization -- to empower women -- throughout Latin America.
Lynne Patterson, an American school teacher, and Carmen Velasco, a Bolivian professor in psychology, wanted to use their shared passion and expertise to help the poorest women in Bolivia achieve economic and social well-being.
Carmen and Lynne met in El Alto, Bolivia.
Seldom have cross-cultural partnerships produced such exceptional results. In 1990, Lynne and Carmen founded Pro Mujer, a women's development organization that offers credit, access to savings accounts, healthcare, and training to poor women entrepreneurs in Latin America.
They began by meeting women in houses and courtyards in El Alto. Their first task was to understand how to provide useful training to women in the barrios. These were semi-literate indigenous women, ages 30 to 40, who were qualifying for food donations.
Like the women's consciousness meetings of the 1970's in North America, Lynne and Carmen asked the women to answer basic questions: Who am I? What are my strengths? What are my goals? "This was the first time these women had ever been asked such questions," Lynne told me recently. "These were women sitting on a blanket with their kids, and they began to talk, to open up, to share their dreams."
With her increased income and savings, Pro Mujer in Bolivia Client
Flora Callisaya bought her own land and a house.
Lynne and Carmen eventually developed a participative process whereby the women reflected on their own experiences and began to think about their own lives and what they wanted for themselves and their children.
For example, when asked, How did your parents teach you? and How are you teaching your children?, they quickly saw traditional patterns emerging and repeating. "We watched our brothers go to school, while we stayed home to do the housework."
Lynne and Carmen quickly realized that their work was nothing short of ending centuries of racism, social and economic exclusion, and gender discrimination against women. While they wanted to help provide a better life for the women in the community, it was the women themselves who asked for help to start or improve small businesses.
The women's priority was to generate income which would enable them to provide life's basic necessities for their families. Lynne and Carmen first developed a training course in business skills. All the women made business plans.
Once they had their plans, they asked for credit to put these plans into practice. These women lacked the education and skills needed to access credit from commercial banks, but were smart and willing to guarantee each other's loans.
The regular group meetings provided an opportunity to give women the ongoing training they needed to develop themselves and their abilities. Microfinance and education became the means to an end --the empowerment of women, which Lynne and Carmen saw as the most effective way of alleviating poverty.
To develop Pro Mujer's unique integrated approach and group-based methodology, Lynne and Carmen first observed successful microfinance models, including Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. But given the specific needs and cultural differences in Latin America, they developed an innovative model that responds to the region's specific economic needs and cultural conditions. This model combines health care support and training with credit.
Poverty and health are deeply intertwined. If a woman or her child falls sick, she will not be able to run her business or care for her family. That is why Pro Mujer offers healthcare and health education to clients and their children.
Pro Mujer focuses on women because they are more apt to use their earnings and savings to better feed their children, care for their children's health and enroll their children in school. Women value the services they receive from Pro Mujer and recognize the vital role of health care and education in making a lasting impact on the futures of their children.
Pro Mujer reaches out to women whose income does not cover basic food, shelter, health, and education needs. These women engage in small income-generating activities such as food processing, sewing and weaving, shopkeeping, craft-making, and renting bicycles.
Pro Mujer staff provide check-ups through the mobile clinic in Peru.
"Credit alone is not enough to lift women and their families out of poverty," explains Lynne. "Just as the poor need access to credit to earn an income, they need access to healthcare and education to prevent illnesses that deplete their savings and wipe out their livelihoods."
Pro Mujer has grown organically in Latin America. A key to the distribution of its integrated services is its group lending or communal bank methodology. Pro Mujer organizes women into communal banks, groups of approximately 25 women who apply for loans as a group.
These women guarantee each other's loans; if one cannot pay, the others pay for her. The bank's leaders often recruit other women whom they trust to repay their loans. Such group guarantees result in low delinquency rates.
The communal banking methodology of Pro Mujer is best suited for women living right at the poverty line or below. Women who have only each other's word as a guarantee for repayment.
A Pro Mujer client helps her daughter with homework in Nicaragua.
Each communal bank has its own name and identity. It is a grassroots group with its own officers and agenda. Each group manages its loans; screens members; documents loans; ensures, tracks, and deposits loan payments; and provides a guarantee for the rest of the group. The groups meet at neighborhood centers once or twice a month.
These centers serve as the nexus of women's financial, health, and educational services. In short, all interventions needed to move the community forward. Simultaneous to financial services, women receive health care support and training. They have access to pap smears at low or no cost.
Cervical cancer is a leading killer of women in Nicaragua. Approximately 700 out of 9,000 clients in Nicaragua who have had a pap examination were found to have pre-malignant tumors. Women then become role models for the next generation.
At Pro Mujer poor women learn to embrace their strengths and believe in their own abilities. As one woman said, "For the first time in my life someone believes I can succeed."
Many of the children of the women that Lynne and Carmen began to help 19 years ago are currently studying in universities. Pro Mujer now offers education loans for elementary and high school education, and has a partnership with the Ministry of Education in Peru. Pro Mujer now serves 222,000 women and more than one million children and family members in Argentina, Bolivia, Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru.
In the past 19 years, the organization has disbursed over US$582 million in small loans, and provided healthcare and training to hundreds of thousands of women and their families.
Pro Mujer's success stems from its ability to directly address the structural problems of poverty and the need for employment and social security. It continues to provide health care where local governments fail to provide it. If the United States cannot provide adequate health care to its people, one can only imagine the challenges for countries with fewer resources.
Pro Mujer in Mexico Client Matilde Cruz works with clay.
The next stage for Pro Mujer is to scale up its services so that it can help thousands more women in Latin America who don't have access to financial or health services and lack the support of a strong social network like the one that Pro Mujer provides.
"We now have competition in the world of microfinance," Lynne told me. "We must provide the best services at the best prices, while remaining client-focused and maintaining our core mission of poverty alleviation and self-empowerment."
Surpassing Lynne and Carmen's vision, Pro Mujer is helping some of the poorest women in Latin America to increase their income, develop their full potential, and claim their basic human rights, enabling them to become agents of change in their families and communities.
Lynne and Carmen are thought leaders and global citizens. They sparked an initiative that has given thousands of poor Latin American women and their families the opportunity to live with dignity.