CNN Heroes: Duvall shines spotlight on cause

Monday, December 3, 2007

Robert Duvall’s heroes are Carmen Velasco and Lynne Patterson — two women who are changing the lives of other women throughout Latin America one loan at a time.

Their foundation, Pro Mujer, has created a growing network of microfinance institutions that help the most impoverished women and their families.

“These two ladies are true heroes to everybody that comes in contact with them,” the Oscar- and Emmy-winning actor said. “Because of Pro Mujer, these women were allowed to help their families, and help their own self-esteem. They started something wonderful. And it’s working.

“Women are so downtrodden in some of these societies. So we want to help … in any way we can,” said Duvall, an honorary chair of an upcoming benefit gala in New York with his wife, Luciana.

Half of Latin American and Caribbean women have given birth by age 22, the National Research Council reported in 2005. And nearly 86 percent of Latin America’s single-parent households are headed by women, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.”In Latin America women are really second-class citizens,” Patterson said. “They work in their communities. They raise children. They keep home. They’re not given credit for everything they do.”

Patterson and Velasco’s work began in 1989 when Patterson, a Long Island, New York-based teacher, moved to La Paz, Bolivia, after her husband took a job there. She was quickly introduced to Velasco by a mutual friend.
They had a shared desire to help the poorest women of La Paz, whose food donation programs were threatening to close down.

The pair designed grass-roots training programs for groups of impoverished mothers in the areas of health, child development and self-sufficiency.

“Pro Mujer means ’For Women.’ It completely captures the essence of this institution,” Patterson said. “We believe in women’s capability. We respect women’s ability. And Pro Mujer is all about women.”

Pro Mujer has since established five microfinance institutions in Argentina, Bolivia, Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru that offer loans to groups of first-time borrowers and entrepreneurs — mostly women without credit history or collateral.

“Pro Mujer is so much more than a financial institution where women borrow and repay and save,” Patterson said. “It’s really about women realizing their potential … and having the tools and the skills they need to take their place in society as more equitable partners.

“[We’re] able to offer credit to first-time borrowers because of a ’peer group guarantee.’ Women form groups of people they know. … If one of the group is not able to repay her loan, the rest are responsible for helping her make that payment.”

Added Velasco: “They don’t repay only because they want to repay. They don’t want to fail their neighbors. They don’t want to fail their friends.

“When we invest in women, we’re investing in the future of their families. We’re investing in social development,” Velasco said. “We can show investors that if they put their money in Pro Mujer, they are making a difference in the life of very poor populations in Latin America.”

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Source: CNN Heroes (link opens in a new window)