A Conversation with Lynne Patterson, Co-Founder of Pro Mujer
10 July, 2023
Pro Mujer was born in El Alto, Bolivia, in 1990, the creation of two committed educators with the same dream: Transform the lives of the next generation by betting on women as agents of change and amplifiers of social well-being. Now, 33 years later, the Pro Mujer team recently had the opportunity to participate in an online forum with Lynne Patterson, co-founder of Pro Mujer, and hear her share some of her greatest inspirations and lessons learned. We’re pleased to share a brief overview of this incredible conversation.
During a time of discrimination and social backwardness for women and underserved populations in El Alto, Bolivia, in 1989, educators Lynne Paterson and Carmen Velasco came together with a shared dream: Transform the lives of children and young people in Bolivia by betting on women as agents of change and amplifiers of social well-being.
“It was women’s strong fighting spirit that strengthened our profound desire to help women change their lives and the lives of future generations,” shared Lynne during the meeting with the Pro Mujer team, which today includes more than 1,400 staff throughout the region. “It wasn’t easy, but our commitment to the women we served was enough to motivate us to work day and night and against all odds. Women were our teachers and our inspiration.” Lynne reminisced about when Pro Mujer was still a nascent project, without much structure, but with the clear objective of supporting women to improve their living conditions and positively impact their families and communities.
At first, Lynne and Carmen provided food donations to the most underserved women. Shortly after that, they put their skills as educators to use, providing women with training and capacity-building sessions to empower women and provide them with tools they could use to change their perception of themselves.
Always centering women and their needs, Lynne and Carmen started to hold group meetings where small groups of women opened their hearts to share the extreme inequality they lived in. “These women shared their goals, their problems, their desires and feelings,” explained Lynne. “We were listening to women who had never been listened to before.” This safe space was a refuge for these women and became a place where they could explore ideas and create new solutions for their challenges.
“The mutual support and encouragement among the women’s groups allowed us to grow our users,” shared Lynne. “The trust in [Pro Mujer] grew and grew, and women started to emphasize that they needed access to credit to get ahead and put what they had learned into action.”
Lynne and Carmen identified two solutions to existing unmet needs: the first was to facilitate women’s access to capital so that they could start a business, and the second was to offer access to health services, as many preferred not to seek care from public health services due to discrimination and prejudice.
Inspired by the resilience of the women in El Alto, Lynne and Carmen traveled to Bangladesh to learn about solidarity lending, a revolutionary model pioneered by the economist Dr. Muhammad Yunus. They were inspired to bring the community banking methodology to Bolivia. Based on a structure of trust and collaboration, these solidarity groups supported each other through the process of taking on and repaying debt. “The women supported each other; they had each other. They embodied the spirit of community and mutual support,” recalled Lynne.
Pro Mujer was an incredible success in Bolivia, and our comprehensive and holistic model has since been launched in other countries throughout Latin America. In 1996, we launched in Nicaragua, followed by Mexico (2001), Argentina (2005), and Guatemala in 2022, an expansion of our geographic footprint that also included Pro Mujer’s arrival in Southeast Mexico.
In each new country, we adopt an intersectional approach to create products and services that effectively meet local women’s needs.
Pro Mujer is a social enterprise with more than 33 years of experience working to advance gender equality in Latin America. Over the course of our history, we have disbursed US$4.4 billion in loans, provided 10 million health services, and impacted the lives of more than 2.5 million women.
In 2022 alone, we impacted the lives of 460,000+ people, disbursed US$324 million in loans, provided skilling opportunities to 220,000+ women, and reached 400,000+ women through our health services.
“The journey so far has been an unbelievable adventure,” concluded Lynne. “I’m incredibly proud to have been part of an organization that has changed the lives of thousands of women. Although there’s still so much work to be done, I know that the passion and commitment of this amazing team will take you far.”