Meet Marie de Cenival: Senior Gender Advisor, Heartland Alliance International

In celebration of Women’s History Month we are highlighting empowered women who are paving the road and empowering female leaders of the future. Meet Marie de Cenival, Heartland Alliance International’s Senior Gender Advisor. Across all programs, Marie ensures we promote progressive, innovative approaches to human rights protections and gender equality.

Tell us a little about why you were drawn to this as a career and what has kept you there.

In 1996 I lost my lover Michelle from AIDS. This was the year when antiretroviral drugs against HIV had finally become accessible in Northern rich countries. Unfortunately I was not able to provide these lifesaving medicines to Michelle in Cote d’Ivoire where she lived, despite months of efforts to get her into local clinical trials or smuggle medicine from Europe. Her death triggered my full engagement in the global campaign for universal access to affordable treatment. Eventually I realized that the promotion of LGBT and women’s rights was central to the fight against this epidemic. From an HIV treatment advocate I became a feminist, from there women’s rights program director then a gender advisor, with expertise in public health. (that’s the short version).

Was there a moment where you knew you were in a job that was right for you? Could you talk about that?

There is a before, and an after: before is when I worked as a curator, translating complex science into accessible language for a large audience.  I was a bit bored, and my work performance was nothing remarkable. After is when I used my passion for how science works to influence decision makes and international agencies. Everything I had learned seemed to be called upon, all the skills I had -and was not aware I had, totally expressed themselves; I found a community, and became addicted to the feeling of participating in change. It all fell into place.

What is your favorite part of your job?

Direct technical assistance to our country teams, and project design are the best part. One is adventurous, the other is brainy. Actually I love the articulation of both: finding the coherence between a global vision and a local solution is the most fascinating aspect of the work at HAI, because we look for large scale solutions to problems faced by very marginalized, isolated individuals. Moments when you sit with the team in Nigeria or in Colombia, field visits, focus group discussions with participants to our programs, these moments of dialogue are invaluable. This is when your job takes meaning, where you confront your assumptions on what works with the reality of what has happened… or could happen! You measure how difficult it is to conceptualize change from afar. Then comes the time when you and your colleagues from so many departments and offices put your heads together to design the project that will be even more relevant to solve these problems… and you know it won’t be ideal, but the people most affected will, eventually, impose the needed change… with our help.

How can others support your work?

Conviction and engagement can go a long way, as far as women’s rights are concerned. Every single contribution to the #metoo initiative fuels a global trend towards funding the women’s movement, for example. I am not talking about your financial contributions here, I am talking about stepping in. Joining the cause. There is no progress for women and for gender minorities in the absence of a social movement to support the shift in power that is necessary, and to demand accountability in the face of discrimination and abuse of power. Today in the USA, more than ever, we need all good willing citizens to step in: as the words “comprehensive sexual education” and the words “sexual and reproductive rights” are being erased from policy documents and become taboo for US ambassadors; as our President extends the damage already done by US policies against abortion rights; as funding for UNFPA who distributes condoms over the world is being cut… our work becomes more difficult.