Alexandra Blanco, general counsel, Pro Mujer

For 30 years, Pro Mujer has offered financial services, skill-building opportunities, and access to healthcare to women across Latin America. Pro Mujer’s Bolivia-based General Counsel Alexandra Blanco shares how her work helps support women’s empowerment.

In Bolivia, unequal access to justice undermines the possibility of equality in society. As a university student, I volunteered with a human rights organization that worked in a women’s prison here in Bolivia. Most of the women that I worked with were survivors of gender violence, and it quickly became clear that many women were in jail simply because they did not have the money to afford a lawyer, not because they were likely responsible for a crime. Most of these women did not know their rights, so we worked with them to explain their human rights, help them with their legal cases, and share information on what their futures might look like.

It was obvious to me that the system had failed these women and that they needed a way to escape the vicious cycle of poverty and violence. For me, the answer was simple: help women support their families and themselves so that they could leave violence behind and start a new life.

This chapter of my life defined me. I knew that I wanted to continue to fight for women’s rights and women’s empowerment. At Pro Mujer, we spend every day working to make these objectives a reality.

Closing gender gaps

The gender gaps in the financial sector are alarming. Globally, only 6% of investment capital goes to companies led by women, and 70% of women do not have access to capital to start a business. In Latin America, women’s access to funding is even bleaker. Covid-19 has further exacerbated the situation – the progress made over the last 10 years in terms of achieving equality in the labor market has been erased, and rates of gender-based violence have exploded. In Bolivia, the figures are sobering: every day, a woman is killed by gender violence, and only one in three cases is ever reported.

Gender equality contributes to poverty reduction and boosts the economy. According to McKinsey, closing the gender gap would result in an automatic increase in global GDP of 11%, and GDP in Latin America would increase by 14% if women were encouraged to participate in the economy and received the support they need to do so.

Data show that if you give a woman access to loans, they tend to use the money to support their family and be more productive than men. In 2021 alone, Pro Mujer disbursed US$269 million in loans to women who were unable to access traditional financial services. Pro Mujer uses a holistic approach to positively impact women’s lives. We go beyond just financial inclusion and access to microfinance loans, offering access to health services, digital inclusion initiatives, and skill-building opportunities.

In 2021, we provided 400,000 health services, including 3,000 free mammograms in Mexico, preventive health services for breast cancer and cervical cancer, access to a chatbot for diabetes prevention, and access to contraceptives.

Pro Mujer’s community health workers also play a critical role in our health and well-being initiatives, as they are able to reach women in rural areas where hospitals and doctors are scarce. Each community health worker is trained to detect risk factors in their communities and refer women to a health clinic, if necessary.

Over the past few years, Pro Mujer has also ramped up its focus on digital inclusion. Today, 67% of women have access to the internet. We strongly believe that digital tools will allow us to offer more financing and training opportunities to more women.

In addition, we are working together with US Vice President Kamala Harris as a member of the Partnership for Central America and have committed to increasing our impact in the Northern Triangle, reaching more than three million people with our services. To meet this commitment, we will be opening an office in Guatemala.

Gender lens investing

Pro Mujer is committed to strengthening the gender lens investing ecosystem in Latin America by creating investment strategies, sharing best practices with investors that want to create impactful social change, and offering technical assistance to private companies to help them get gender smart.

In 2019, Pro Mujer partnered with Deetken Impact to launch the Ilu Women’s Empowerment Fund. The Fund invests in a diversified portfolio of high-impact businesses that support women in leadership and governance, offer products and services that meet the needs of women and girls, develop gender-sensitive value chains, and support workplace equity.

In 2021, the Ilu Women’s Empowerment Fund was awarded funding from USAID to develop the ILU Women’s Empowerment Program. This program seeks to increase gender equality in Latin America and the Caribbean through three main components: incremental capital, technical assistance and knowledge sharing, and advocacy.

Within the framework of this program, we launched the Ilu Toolbox, an open-source platform featuring more than 30 resources to help companies address gender gaps and implement strategies to attract gender lens investing.

Identifying the appropriate legal mechanisms

In the past, the role of general counsel was more to put out fires. These days, the general counsel is a key business partner that should be involved in an organization’s business decisions from the very beginning of its operations. Pro Mujer is always working to expand its impact footprint and empower more women. Our role as a legal team is to identify the appropriate legal mechanisms so that Pro Mujer can expand its footprint through alliances and support more women. Latin America is very politically volatile, and we must navigate a lot of legal challenges in order to continue our work.

At Pro Mujer, the legal team must go beyond the role of legal advisor to make sure that the organization is able to continue to impact and empower women. The most rewarding part of the job is going out into the field and hearing the success stories. Knowing that we have had an impact on the lives of our employees and clients is truly gratifying. We have supported women who are survivors of gender-based violence and have empowered them to start a new life. One specific success story that has stayed with me is that of a woman who has been a part of Pro Mujer for more than two decades. Twenty-four years ago, she started to sell boots in the streets of El Alto; now she owns a factory.

The role of in-house lawyers is different today than it was 20, 30 years ago. Now we are the dealmakers of the organization, and we must become thought leaders for our organizations – we are not in the back office anymore.

Not just any policies: The right policies

As members of the legal profession, we must think about the impact we can have and the critical importance of supporting women. In Latin America, many women do not have access to the courts or to fair laws, and the region is very behind in everything to do with dealing with gender-based violence. There is a lot of space to improve the laws, but it is also necessary to ensure equal access to the court system – because you can have perfect laws, but if women cannot access the justice system, those laws are useless. I think there are a lot of opportunities for lawyers to be proactive, to make our voices heard, and to identify how we can help improve women’s lives.

Something that concerns me is the fact that a lot of people do not speak about sexual harassment. When I started my career, many years back, it was something that you had to live with. I sadly have personal stories about sexual harassment; as a woman, it was just something you were expected to deal with when you navigated in a men’s corporate world. Today, times have changed, and although sexual harassment is no longer acceptable, there is still a long way to go.

As members of the legal team, we are involved in creating company policies, and these policies must include gender inclusion and diversity. I strongly believe that gender inclusion must be mandatory in every company’s internal policy—gender inclusion should not be optional. It is our role as inside counsel to make sure that the policies not only exist, but also that the right policies are in place and are effective.