Empowering Rural Women, One Loan At A Time

It is a bright, warm morning in rural southern Peru where women are streaming into the San Bernabe Health Center. As they enter, they are greeted warmly by the center's staff, then either head to the second floor to the bank, or remain on the ground floor to see one of several healthcare providers. The women, many of whom have brought along their small children, wait to see doctors in a sunny courtyard with new, brightly colored playground equipment and a food stand where they can purchase healthy snacks, juice and water.

This is Pro Mujer's Club de la Salud, an integrated microfinance and health center located in the Moqueguea region, a rural farming and mining district of approximately 160,000 people. In Peru alone, Pro Mujer operates 41 centers serving 60,000 people. Since 2011, Johnson & Johnson has partnered with Pro Mujer to support several centers in rural regions throughout Peru.

In the sunny waiting area, I meet Dorimar, her mother Nancy and her two sons, Jesus Fernando, age three, and Carlos Israel, age one. Dorimar has come to the clinic because she and her sons are suffering from cold symptoms; Nancy is here to have a routine check-up for her diabetes. A Pro Mujer client since 2008, Dorimar takes out small loans to finance her business selling toys and benefits from a discounted health package where she and her family members can visit the clinic throughout the year. Covered visits include routine and dental check-ups, obgyn services, and screening and maintenance of chronic conditions. This coverage is crucial in a country where non-communicable diseases like cancer, hypertension and diabetes account for 66 percent of deaths.

Before she became a client of Pro Mujer, Dorimar often delayed her visits to the doctor until she or her children were very sick. "I have my own business, so taking time away to go to the doctor means that I can't work that day. I used to wait all day to see a doctor in a different office that was just full of sick people, and there was no place for my sons to play. I didn't feel like the doctors really wanted to help me."

Now, Dorimar can take care of her business and her health at the same place. But clearly the Club de la Salud is more than the sum of its parts. With the playground, access to healthy snacks like jello and fruit, and the attentiveness of the staff, Dorimar says it feels like home. "Here, I can relax knowing that my family and I are going to be treated well."

That is great news for Julio Sosa Iberos, Health Director for Pro Mujer's operations in Peru. "We want women to feel comfortable so they are less stressed, and they keep coming back to use the health services. Our goal is to renovate our centers across Peru to achieve that same effect."

In addition to gaining access to friendlier, more robust healthcare, Dorimar has become a successful businesswoman. Since her first loan of 500 soles, or $175, Dorimar has taken out additional loans over the years to grow her business and is now able to travel to other regions to purchase better toys. In a country where the poverty rate is more than 50 percent in some rural areas, impoverished women lack access to capital and affordable loans. Facilitating access to those loans helps women like Dorimar to achieve and maintain successful livelihoods. And we know that investing in women is also an investment in the health and well-being of their families. When women are active, compensated members of the workforce, they spend 90 percent of their earned income on their families and those who use maternal health services are more likely to seek healthcare for their children.

In addition to the positive impact on Dorimar's health, she's observed positive changes in her entire household, as well as her role in it. When I asked her about her relationship with her husband, Dorimar said, "It's very good. He takes care of his business [in construction] and I take care of mine. Recently, we combined our finances to purchase land and, with an additional loan from my group at Pro Mujer, we are building a house. It will be ready in January."

In celebration of the International Day of the Rural Woman, let's take a moment to recognize Dorimar and all rural women who are playing a critical role in their local economies and acting as force-multipliers for change in the health and well-being of their families.