Maria Alejandra Rodriguez, a single mother of three from Nicaragua, begins to cry when she speaks about the past. As a street vendor in the village of Jinotepe, she struggled every day to support her children. Some days, she fed them a bowl of rice. Other days, they went hungry. At one point, they didn't go to school for a year because she couldn't afford to buy them shoes.
"I don't know how we did it," she says now, wiping away tears.
Things took a turn for Ms. Rodriguez in 2006, thanks to a $100 loan from the women's development and microfinance organization Pro Mujer. The loan enabled her to start a modest hardware business and join one of Pro Mujer's communal banks: a safe, supportive environment for women who could build their futures through small loans. Together, they shared personal and professional challenges – many were victims of domestic abuse and worried about their husbands' reactions – and covered for each other when someone couldn't pay a loan.
Pro Mujer ("Pro Women" in Spanish) is one of Latin America's leading microfinance institutions, helping to lift women out of poverty in Bolivia, Nicaragua, Peru, Mexico, and Argentina. It has disbursed $1 billion in small loans to more than 270,000 women, and has provided business training, health education, and health-care services to approximately 1.6 million women and more than 6 million children and family members.
Pro Mujer cofounder Lynne Patterson is a self-effacing woman with playful blue eyes and a warm smile. But when she speaks about Pro Mujer's mission, she leans in, widens her eyes, and punctuates her sentences by hitting her palms on the table.
"At Pro Mujer, we tell the women, 'We believe you can do it. Come through the door with us. You hold the key to your own future,' " says Ms. Patterson, who likes to cite inspiring quotes on women's equality from philosopher Amartya Sen and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft.
She met Pro Mujer cofounder Carmen Velasco in 1989, when they were both teaching children in La Paz, Bolivia. They soon realized that the best way to help the children was by helping their mothers. So Patterson and Ms. Velasco began teaching them basic health and leadership skills.
"I think I learned more that year than the women did," Patterson says. "I learned what it's like to be very poor, to have no access to health services, to experience subjugation."
Soon the women were eager to earn an income and to learn how to start small businesses. Patterson and Velasco, who had no prior business experience, got a small grant from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and began teaching financial skills. In 1990, Pro Mujer was born.
Velasco led Pro Mujer's flagship operations in Bolivia from its inception till 2007 and retired last January. Patterson spearheaded the organization's expansion in Nicaragua, Peru, Mexico, and Argentina and remains an ambassador for Pro Mujer in the United States and Britain.
"Lynne and Carmen are understated in so many ways," says Bob Annibale, global director of Citi Community Development and Microfinance, a partner of Pro Mujer. "But don't underestimate them. They're not only teachers. They have run banks as well as social services for thousands of women throughout Latin America."
What distinguishes Pro Mujer from other microfinance groups, Mr. Annibale says, is its deep commitment to health care. "How can you maintain livelihood without health care? A whole family depends on it," he adds.
One Pro Mujer donor, Stanley Eisenberg, thoroughly researched nonprofits interested in women's equality and selected Pro Mujer to be funded by his family foundation because of the organization's transparency and commitment.
"Lynne and Carmen have devoted their lives to this," Mr. Eisenberg says. "They have lived, eaten, and breathed their mission. It's the best, well-run charity that [I] know."
Eisenberg, president and chairman of Sunnydale Farms in Brooklyn, N.Y., and a contributor to Pro Mujer, has visited several countries with Pro Mujer staff to see its operations, meet its clients, and hear stories firsthand.
"Every place we went to, I was blown away to see what my money was doing," he says.
Patterson attributes Pro Mujer's success to the women themselves.
"We go into these communities with a loan, training, and services, and very modest means," she says. "But what we're really doing is mining for gold, and the gold is what's in the women: We are enabling them to discover their own value. And that is immeasurable."
She laughs when she remembers how ill-prepared Pro Mujer was to open operations in its second country, Nicaragua, in 1996. "This was not Bolivia by any means, but a country that had recently undergone a revolution," she says. "I was so scared to go that I couldn't get on the plane – and changed my reservation!"
She finally boarded a plane, equipped with little except her laptop and a box of training manuals and accompanied by Kathleen O'Sullivan, a young Peace Corps volunteer who had been helping schoolchildren create vegetable gardens.
While other nongovernmental organizations were based in Managua, the country's capital, USAID directed Patterson and Ms. O'Sullivan to the remote, impoverished areas of Leon and Chinandega, where women desperately needed access to capital. Their mission was to hire a staff to recruit, train, and introduce loans to women. But the two quickly faced significant cultural differences.
"The women were very outspoken, and we struggled to make the groups cohesive and orderly," Patterson says. "I thought it would never happen."
Then they met Gloria Ruiz. She had worked in the countryside training women in sustainable agriculture and had fought her way out of poverty and into an education. During the Nicaraguan revolution, she won a government scholarship in agricultural engineering. As repayment, the government required Ms. Ruiz to guard the farmers and coffee fields, where she walked with a rifle strapped to her back.
Patterson and O'Sullivan hired her on the spot. "What resonated with me was that Pro Mujer promoted a change in women's attitudes," says Ruiz, a petite, driven woman, in Spanish. "Poverty is not part of your DNA, and there's nobody more convinced than me that you can overcome it. I had, and I knew I could help others."
Today, as director of Pro Mujer Nicaragua, she oversees more than 300 employees and 51,000 clients. Under her leadership, Pro Mujer has become the second-largest microfinance institution in Nicaragua, and the only one that provides a comprehensive package of services.
Patterson has still bigger goals. She wants Pro Mujer to reach 1 million women by 2020.
"We're not empowering them; they're empowering themselves," she says. "Maria Alejandra Rodriguez is a prime example of that."
Today, Rodriguez and her business are thriving. Her Pro Mujer loans now average $4,000 a year, and she plans to invest in a brickmaking machine so she can sell bricks in her village. She's also grateful to Pro Mujer for screening and treatment programs that helped her detect and defeat her diagnosed case of cancer.
But Rodriguez, who has a third-grade education, says her most important achievement is her children's education. Her daughter, age 22, is in college studying electrical engineering; her twin boys, 17, plan to study medicine, business, or law.
A few weeks ago, Rodriguez boarded a plane for the first time, and flew to New York City to be a special guest at Pro Mujer's annual benefit, "Giving Women Credit." At the elegant dinner she told her story through an interpreter. Afterward, the crowd gave her a standing ovation. Rodriguez gave a humble wave, and wiped more tears away.
She says she has so much more to achieve.
"I want to make my dreams come true before I leave this world," she says.
• To learn more, visit http://promujer.org.
Help in Latin America
UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations worldwide. Projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause.
Below are three groups selected by UniversalGiving that help in Latin America:
• Un Techo para mi País provides impoverished families in Latin America with transitional housing and other programs. Project: Provide a microloan for a Latin American entrepreneur.
• Miracles In Action provides Guatemalans living in extreme poverty with opportunities to help themselves through educational, vocational, and other projects. Project: Sponsor a sewing machine at a vocational school.