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Dressed in traditional indigenous attires, the famous Cholita Luchadoras in Bolivia fearlessly take on their opponents in the ring. Latin America’s women are all in some way luchadoras (fighters), meeting challenges and adversity head on. They include entrepreneurs, mothers, students, congresswomen, senators and ministers, pushing the needle forward for gender equality. Through the lens of Pro Mujer’s 30-year experience serving the needs of Latin America’s women, we bring you this digital exhibition in celebration of women’s strength and perseverance in the face of challenges and unexpected obstacles.

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Dressed in traditional indigenous colorful attires, the Cholitas Luchadoras fearlessly take on their opponents in the ring.

Pro Mujer’s founder Carmen Velasco unveiling one of its first locations in Bolivia.  

The Latin America Where
Pro Mujer Was Born

Since Pro Mujer’s founding 30 years ago, women in Latin America have made great strides. They have assumed leadership roles, obtained higher levels of education and gained greater access to healthcare. They have started and grown businesses, achieved financial independence, and in some cases – where they gained new rights – they even married women.

Yet despite gains, women continue to face a deeply rooted machismo culture and systemic inequalities. When women arrive at Pro Mujer, through friends, relatives, and neighbors, they are often in difficult situations, facing strained finances, health conditions and at times experiencing domestic violence. But above all, the more than 2 million women who have arrived at Pro Mujer’s door have shown determination to improve their lives and create a brighter future.

Carmen Velasco and Lynne Patterson

In 1990, Carmen Velasco and Lynne Patterson began creating a safe space in Bolivia’s Altiplano region where women could connect for mutual support and encouragement. Following a small grant from USAID and support from the Bolivian government, they offered microfinance, health and human development services to their growing base of female clients who would become the first beneficiaries of Pro Mujer.

Microfinance banks were rare and economists doubted their viability. Microcredit posed an especially risky case because it served the needs of the poorest women, but through an innovative communal banking and peer-group guarantee methodology, Pro Mujer found a way to mitigate that risk.

Women formed small groups with other women they knew in order to be eligible to borrow. If one member was not able to repay her loan, the group would help her repay it. Today, Pro Mujer has become one of the largest women’s organizations in Latin America, offering an integrated suite of services in finance, health and education across six countries.

Lynne Patterson dancing with a Cholita, an indigenous woman from Bolivia.

THE FIRST EXPANSION

Gloria Ruiz describes herself as a Pro Mujer “dinosaur.” Employed by the organization since July of 1996, she lent her engineering skills to help women increase their self-sufficiency, and also participated actively in Pro Mujer’s expansion into Nicaragua.

At the time, health services in Nicaragua were saturated. Lines were long, service was lacking and lab exams weren’t always trustworthy because results were often mixed. The need for better, more reliable services was apparent. Pro Mujer began to hire doctors and nurses, and with funds from USAID, Pro Mujer was able to open its own clinics, to provide much needed services and promote preventative care – a critical piece of overall well-being.

30 YEARS PUSHING
THE NEEDLE FORWARD

Increased Public Spending

During the 90s, governments widely increased the minimum wage and spending on social welfare and development programs, many of them targeted at women and mothers. Women’s access to state resources via transfers and services were expanded which helped increase the number of women with an independent income, making them less dependent on their husbands. In varying degrees across countries, maternity leaves were augmented and alternative sources of care were developed to allow women to participate more fully in the workforce.

Important Social Victories

In 2010, the Argentine government enacted Latin America’s first ever same-sex marriage law; five years before same-sex marriage became the law of the land in the United States. A gender-identity law, one of the world’s most liberal, followed, and Argentina’s gay-rights advances were quickly emulated by neighboring countries, starting a “gay-rights revolution” in Latin America.

In 2019, Pro Mujer disbursed $332 million dollars in loans to help underserved women grow their businesses 
Closing the gender gap and making sure women participated in the economy identically to men would add $28 trillion to the global GDP by 2025.
Gender equality leads to poverty reduction. From 2000 to 2010, women’s increased labor participation rates in Latin America decreased extreme poverty in 30%. 

MARIAH ACOSTA

“Pro Mujer welcomed me, encouraged me to be confident. They supported the process of changing my legal identity to ‘female.’ I’ve become a part of society and others have learned to trust me and see me as just another one of the girls.” – Mariah Araceli Acosta.

Mariah Araceli Acosta learned about Pro Mujer in 2009 when her family was in a difficult economic situation. She used her first loan to buy merchandise for her mother’s store. They slowly won over the neighbors, who to this day are still clients that the family is proud to have. With the profits, Mariah opened her own food stand, built her own home and purchased upgrades like freezers and an oven for her business. When Argentina’s law on gender identity was passed, she was able to change the gender on her national ID card to female. Pro Mujer helped her with the documentation. She’s now studying beauty and dreams of opening her own school.

BARRIERS AGAINST EQUALITY

Women in Latin America are in a considerably better place than they were 30 years ago, yet progress has not been constant. Human trafficking, migration, gender-based violence, high levels of teen pregnancy and a lack of comprehensive health care continue to plague more vulnerable populations of women.

A 2018 march in Nicaragua against gender-based violence. 

“Femicide is the most extreme expression of violence against women. Neither the criminal classification of this offense nor the efforts to make it statistically visible have been enough to eradicate this scourge that alarms and horrifies us on a daily basis.”

Alicia Bárcena, Executive Secretary, ECLAC

Violence
Against Women:
by the Numbers

Violence against women is an epidemic
across Latin America. Despite recording
an alarmingly high number of femicide
cases, only a fraction of the perpetrators
are brought to justice.