A new UN Women Regional Center for Latin America and the Caribbean was opened in late October 2011 in Panama City. It is the first of sixregional centers planned by UN Women, the year-old UN agency working for gender equality and women empowerment.
Interviewed by MediaGlobal, Michelle Bachelet, the UN Women Executive Director and former first elected female president in Chile, insisted on one main point: women in poor countries can become strong agents of change into their communities, if provided with the right tools.
“It is notonly about money; microfinance is not enough,” Bachelet tells MediaGlobal. “When you grant small loans to poor and often low-educated women, some manage to use it in a positive way, but others can also fail very easily.”
She could easily be talking about the work of ProMujer, a non-for-profit organization that works for women’s empowerment in Latin America. Launched in 1990 by two women, an American schoolteacher and a Bolivian professor, ProMujer provides educational and training services, in addition to micro-financial lending instruments.
“We are providing Latin women with business trainings, insisting on managerial and accounting skills, the elaboration of successful business plans, but also good health practices, for supporting them in the launching of their ideas,” says Joshua Cramer-Montes, Director of Communications at ProMujer.
Since its creation, ProMujer has provided more than $1 billion in small loans to some of the poorest women in Bolivia, Nicaragua, Peru, Mexico, and Argentina. According to ProMujer, the focus on women is not only a response to a moral and legal duty, but has a strong economic argument.
“Women tend to reinvest 90 percent of their income into improved nutrition, health and education for their family and children, while that number is only of 40 percent for men,” said Cramer-Montes.
A particular challenge confronting women in Latin America and elsewhere is how to combine professional and household activities. Bachelet understands the dilemma well: one of her first initiative as Chilean president was to triple the number of free early child-care centers for low-income families.
“The family obligations of women should not stand as a barrier to their involvement in other professional activities,” Cramer-Montes tells MediaGlobal. “Many of our clients decide therefore to launch a restaurant or a shop inside of their home, in order for them to take care of their children and work at the same time.”
Besides, witnessing active mothers working to help their family can have great impact on children themselves; they can indirectly benefit from the trainings and business skills acquired by their mothers. The example of Janet, a micro-entrepreneur from ProMujer who launched a chocolate business at home, is particularly encouraging. “I want my children to know what it means to work and to earn one’s daily bread,” Janet says in a video published by ProMujer. “The oldest already helps me when I have a lot of orders.”
Female labor participation in Latin America is increasing. Since the 1980s, the number of professionally active women has more than doubled, thanks to reforms in education and new job opportunities.
ProMujer is also monitoring the reaction of husbands in the region to this trend. “Most husbands to whom I have talked are supporting their wives who desire to start a business,” Cramer-Montes tells MediaGlobal. “They realize their potential to generate new income, and to improve the quality of life of the whole family and community.”
Now more than ever, Latin American women from poor social backgrounds are able and willing to get involved in business activities. Thanks to the continued efforts of Bachelet and UN Women, as well as local organizations such as ProMujer, women are being given the right tools to realize their potential.