It's an hour-long drive from the chaotic capital city of Managua to the smaller, but no less frenetic town of Jinotepe, Nicaragua. Outside of the city, open fields line each side of the small highway, and volcanoes loom large in the distance. It's easy to romanticize the landscape, but poverty is everywhere, and the country has the dubious distinction of being the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere behind Haiti.
Despite these circumstances, Nicaragua's people -- and particularly its women -- are strong, courageous, hardworking survivors.
Maria Alejandra is one of these survivors, and Jinotepe is her home. She was orphaned at the age of 7 when her mother died in an accident. Growing up as a girl in a machista society, she was not offered basic opportunities such as education. As an adult, she became a single mother herself and struggled to raise three children. With no access to capital and little formal education, she relied on what she earned operating a small hardware stand at the market.
When some of the women in her community invited her to join them in forming a communal bank with Pro Mujer, she jumped at the chance. Communal banks are groups of women who guarantee each other's loans, participate in business and life skills training with a facilitator, support one another and access health care services. Pro Mujer delivers these integrated services in 155 of its centers across the region with the support of partners like Johnson & Johnson.
A group's first loans of about $100, when combined with the trust and solidarity of other women, help many women gain economic independence for the first time and open the door to a better future for themselves and their families.
As time went on, her group voted her President, and Maria Alejandra grew her business, made improvements to her home and sent her children to school. Everything was going well for her until her first pap smear, which she received at a Pro Mujer clinic at the urging of her group facilitator, came back positive for cervical cancer. Remembering her own experience as an orphan, her immediate fear was, "How do I tell my children I have cancer?"
Initially she told no one. When members of her communal bank found out, they encouraged her to continue with the group. Maria Alejandra discovered that her fellow women would stand with her, no matter what.
Our research shows Maria Alejandra's experience is all too common. Poverty and health are intrinsically linked, yet the tools to combat them are frequently out of reach for poor women. More times than not, they find themselves in a constant cycle of scarcity -- scarcity of money, support, health and stability. A small event can turn into an emergency: A day out of work, a sick child or a leaky roof can mean not having enough to eat that day. Without access to health care or a strong support system, a serious health-related issue like Maria Alejandra's cancer diagnosis can be catastrophic. In Latin America, women also experience marginalization, isolation, neglect and in many cases, abuse and violence. Despite these conditions, poor women are driven, proud and industrious.
Events like International Women's Day on March 8th and World Health Day on April 7th are important because they remind us of our collective achievements. They inspire us to continue to take action to level the playing field for women. In a few short weeks, Pro Mujer will mark its own special milestone -- 25 years of providing women like Maria Alejandra with the tools they need to become more financially independent and healthy.
Tremendous progress has been made in the region in recent years: Incomes for those at the base of the socio-economic pyramid have increased, and inequality has decreased. Despite these advances, 1 in 4 Latin Americans remains entrenched in the chronic poverty that is handed down from one generation to the next. Women like Maria Alejandra continue to bear the brunt and are most at risk of being left behind.
Flash forward one year after diagnosis: Maria Alejandra is cancer free. Her doctors have told her that she's been given a second chance in life. Her little stand in the market is now a full-scale hardware store and all three of her children are now in college. Maria Alejandra continues to be a leader in her women's group, supporting others on their journeys toward independence and health.
Big international campaigns happen once a year, but the work that takes place to ensure that all of the Maria Alejandras have the resources they need to live with dignity happens year-round. As we close out Women's History Month and move on to the next celebration of progress, let's work to make sure that no one gets left behind.
You can watch Maria Alejandra tell her story here.
Editor's Note: Pro Mujer is a partner of Johnson & Johnson, which is a sponsor of The Huffington Post's Global Motherhood section.