by Jenna Mulhall-Brereton
Article courtesy of The Women’s International Perspective
Elsa Gómez Mamani sits on the ruins of a stone wall on a cold but sunny morning in a field high on the Andean altiplano. We are in southern Peru, on the shores of Lake Titicaca. Elsa wears the traditional full skirts and bowler hat of the Aymara culture, and tells me in halting Spanish about her experience with poverty and entrepreneurship.
Thirty years old, married and the mother of one son, Elsa has lived in Perca, a small rural community, her entire life. Because her mother died when she was just two years old, Elsa and her seven brothers and sisters lived with their father, and had to care for the family’s cows and sheep from an early age. She recalls that it was a difficult childhood. “We often did not have enough money for food.”
When Elsa married, she stayed in the community, tending the cows and goats she and her husband kept outside of their small mud brick home. Together they sold the milk, cheese and wool from their livestock in the central plaza of a town several miles away. Although she had left her father’s home, Elsa’s adult life was not that different from her childhood. Two years ago, she decided to make a change.
Elsa had heard of Pro Mujer in Peru, a microfinance institution (MFI) based in Puno, an urban community about an hour’s bus ride from her village. When representatives from Pro Mujer visited Perca, Elsa did not hesitate to become a client, and encouraged other women to do the same. As a result, she became one of the founders of her communal bank – a group of 20 women who guarantee each other’s microloans, and who come together every two weeks to make payments and encourage each other’s ventures. Most of the women in Elsa’s bank use their loans of US$100-$300 to purchase livestock or raw materials for making traditional crafts. Elsa, however, saw a need for a store in their isolated community and opened one in the front room of her house.
Elsa proudly points out the sow at the front door that she purchased with her earnings. She then stands behind her glass display case filled with pencils and notebooks. Behind her is a shelf stocked with soft drinks, pasta, bread, rice and candy. Elsa uses her loans from Pro Mujer to purchase items in bulk and diversify her offerings. As she waits for me to take a photograph, she explains that although she does not have customers every day, she can count on making sales every week. The income allows her to support her family and save close to US$100, more than she had ever thought possible.
The “Feminization” of Poverty
Though the global economic downturn is now on everyone’s mind, women have long borne the brunt of the world’s financial ills. The World Bank observes that women experience a higher unemployment rate than men in virtually every country in the world. The United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and the UN World Food Program report that 7 out of 10 of the world’s hungry are women and girls. Many experts refer to these indicators as the “feminization of poverty,” a trend that has transpired in recent decades.
Microfinance can be a powerful way to reach these women. In recent years, international organizations, foundations, and individual donors have come to realize the impact that microfinance organizations can have on the lives of impoverished people, particularly women in developing countries.
Launched in 1997, one of the four core themes of the International Microcredit Summit Campaign is “reaching and empowering women.” While it is true that MFIs are uniquely positioned to involve the disenfranchised in designing their own futures, empowerment doesn’t simply occur when poor women are given access to loans. MFIs contribute to women’s empowerment through deliberately designed programming.
Although many MFIs target women (in part because of their high repayment rates and their tendency to invest in their families and their communities ), Pro Mujer is unique in its commitment to helping women develop their full potential, claim their basic human rights, build leadership skills, and access resources in their communities.
Lynne Patterson, Co-Founder and Director of Pro Mujer International in New York, believes that “microfinance institutions make ideal delivery systems for other services, especially for health services.” Pro Mujer’s integrated services approach — health services and business training combined with a portfolio of financial services — helps engender empowerment by providing women with opportunities to take greater control of all aspects of their lives – their business ventures, economic wellbeing, and the health of their families and themselves. “[F]inancial services are not a panacea for the complex problems that women face,” Lynne explains. “Helping women is not just a matter of giving them finance.”
For 19 years, Pro Mujer has provided poor women entrepreneurs in Latin America with access to credit, savings accounts, healthcare and business training. Pro Mujer believes that the empowerment of women is fundamental to ending poverty and creating more equitable societies.
Luz Mila Yanqui, a Pro Mujer client and small business owner in the urban community of Puno, values all that Pro Mujer has to offer: “They give us talks, they give us courses, they teach us about health, they support us in our businesses…and they help us a great deal with the administration of our businesses.” Luz Mila credits this support with giving her and others “the confidence to keep going forward.”
Pro Mujer is based in some of the poorest regions of Latin America. In the Puno region of Peru, 78% of the inhabitants live below the poverty line and 46% are in danger of not meeting their basic daily needs. Last year, the organization served more than 200,000 women and approximately one million children and family members in Argentina, Bolivia, Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru. 98% of the women pay back their loans.
Drawn to the potential of microfinance, I recently wrote my Masters thesis on the relationship between microfinance and women’s empowerment. I decided to conduct my field research with Pro Mujer because I was interested in how MFIs can best empower women, and my definition of empowerment extended beyond the provision of loans: I was interested in how female clients of MFIs can become more aware of their own rights, more confident in their own abilities, and more able to control their own destinies. I was interested in meeting women like Elsa Gómez Mamani.
Over the two months that I conducted focus groups and interviews with Pro Mujer’s clients and staff in Peru, it became clear to me that there are many women like Elsa who have an entrepreneurial spirit, or who believe that they can work to positively impact their own lives and the lives of their children. Organizations like Pro Mujer can provide these women with the tools to make that happen.
Empowerment Beyond Finances
“We are hardworking,” one young client observes. “For this reason, we feel capable of achieving anything, and so that means that the only thing we are missing is economic power, which is why we…borrow…from Pro Mujer.” Clients consistently cited the higher incomes, larger savings, and increased business capabilities that have resulted from their association with Pro Mujer, but even more interesting to me were the non-economic benefits.
Communal banks like the one started by Elsa Gómez Mamani help build social capital for women, which can be a key element in any empowerment strategy. Studies show that women respond particularly well to the communal bank model, which provides for connection, sharing and support.
Yeni Rita Cuentas, a Pro Mujer client and owner of a beauty salon, values the friendships she has made within her communal bank: “We get together to have fun, to relax. We are very united. My companions are strong, hardworking, and collaborative.” Marilea Gutierrez Catacora, who sells beauty products and homemade chocolates, concurs: “We are unified, hardworking, and ready to meet any challenge to keep moving forward.”
Although clients value this solidarity, there are also opportunities for women to assume leadership, a critical aspect of the program’s empowerment agenda. The bank elects a president, vice president, secretary and treasurer. These positions rotate so that each woman has the opportunity to take on a leadership role.
Some women, like Elsa, take to this role naturally. For others, like Luz Mila, it can be challenging, and for them the impact can be especially powerful.
Luz Mila, a Pro Mujer client for 18 years, owns a grocery store, and recently opened a locutorio where Puneños without telephones can make calls. She has served as president, vice president, secretary and treasurer of her communal bank. “I was always rather timid,” she says. “Now, I have no fear of speaking to anyone.”
Women like Elsa and Luz Mila have a significant impact on their communities. Through their partnership with Pro Mujer, they’re helping transform the environment in which their neighbors develop their beliefs and attitudes about gender, while also fostering conditions where more women can take on leadership roles and take steps toward empowerment.
Elsa’s agrarian community is among the most traditional of the region with gender roles that are still ardently respected. And yet, even here, one of the youngest members of Elsa’s communal bank leaves me with these words: “All women are equal to men. We all work. Women have the right to work, just as men do. We have the same rights, men and women.”
You can learn more about Pro Mujer on their website, https://promujer.org/
About the Author
Jenna Mulhall-Brereton is a writer, photographer, language teacher and avid traveler. She earned her BA in French and Spanish from Bryn Mawr College and her MA in International Peace and Conflict Resolution from Arcadia University. Throughout her Masters program, Jenna focused on international development and empowerment issues, writing her thesis on the ways in which microfinance institutions can most effectively engender empowerment for their female clients.
When traveling, particularly in developing countries, Jenna seeks out organizations working to better their communities. In 2008 she spent two months in Puno, Peru, interning in the offices of Pro Mujer, conducting field research with clients for her thesis. She continues to intern with Pro Mujer in New York City and lives in Philadelphia.