Interview Myrtille Danse – Director Hivos Latin America & Caribbean
- You are the Latin American Director of a renowned Dutch international development foundation called Hivos which, amongst other topics, has been fighting LGBTI rights for over 20 years. Can you tell us a little bit about the Foundation’s approach and its major successes in this field?
Hivos seeks new and creative solutions to persistent global problems; solutions created by people taking their lives into their own hands. We offer a positive counterbalancing force against discrimination, inequality, abuse of power and the unsustainable use of our planet’s resources. Our mission is to innovate for social change. With smart projects in the right places, we work towards more open and green societies.
One of our six thematic areas is sexual rights. We strive for a world where everyone, independent of their sexual orientation and gender identity, has control over their own bodies, their sexual identities and their relationships. We therefore aim for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, people living with HIV, and sex workers to make use of newly acquired skills, capacities and relevant support structures to actually claim their rights. The flip side of the coin is that we want the societies in the countries where we work to recognize and accept all sexual orientations and gender identities. Some examples of programs can be found at: https://www.hivos.org/focus-area/sexual-rights-and-diversity/#programs
- Your role at Hivos carries a lot of responsibilities. What does a normal day look like for you at the office?
I manage the regional office for Latin America and the Caribbean. The regional office is based in Costa Rica, but we also manage the local offices based in Guatemala, Bolivia., Ecuador and Brazil. In total we have ninety people staff working in the region and an annual budget of 20 million euros. Our global office is based in the Netherlands. Due to the 8-hour time difference, my day often starts at five in the morning with calls with my colleagues in the Netherlands. After I drop my two sons at their school I arrive at my office. I coordinate my day with my assistant and my operations manager.
The day is very diverse. I have meetings with my program managers on the progress of the programs they are implementing on sexual rights, freedom of expression, women empowerment, sustainable food and sustainable energy. I attend any safety issues related to our local staff and partners in countries where political issues are going on. I meet with my program development managers to discuss new strategies, opportunities for collaborations with other parties, and funding strategies. I also meet with our partners to discuss their work, their needs and their suggestions to improve our collaborations. I also often attend events and participate in panels or share our vision through key note speeches. I often travel to the countries where our local offices are based to coordinate political, financial and operational issues. I also visit public officers, human rights activists, managers of companies and officials of international organisations to develop partnerships, share our opinion on political issues and look for funding.
- Could you tell us a little bit about your professional journey to date?
I studied business administration in the 1990s. During my study, I got interested in the new agenda of sustainable development that was formulated at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. This agenda included an important role for the private sector to contribute to solving environmental and social issues in society. In 1994 I organised a study tour with some fellow students to Costa Rica. We conducted field research for companies, the Dutch government and Dutch research institutes on sustainable development issues and managed to get the trip of four weeks financed.
After this trip I set up a consultancy firm with another student and friend and we worked for 2 years on market studies and business plan development for a number of clients. This allowed us to travel a couple of times to Costa Rica. When I graduated I moved to Costa Rica and work for 8 years on a part-time assignment as a business consultant on corporate social responsibilities and part-time as an advisor on private sector and sustainable development for the Dutch Embassy for Central America.
In 2004 I moved back to the Netherlands and worked five years as a senior program manager on sustainable commodities (coffee, soy, horticulture, oil seeds) and consumer behaviour in Asia, Africa and Asia. In 2009 I established my own social enterprise the BoP Innovation Center. Our aim was to develop together with the private sector new business model for extreme poor people, the so-called Base of the Pyramid. Together with multinational enterprises such as Unilever, DSM and Philips we developed new products and services to improve food security, the access to renewable energy and health. In 2015 I handed over the management and assumed the responsibility as Director for Hivos Latin America and the Caribbean.
4. Which cause are you most passionate about and why?
Enabling people to develop their dreams and improve their well-being. I think every individual has the capacity to dream and reach their ambition. Some people life under better conditions than others, so it is great to help less privileged to improve their living conditions, so they can explore their own potential and further develop themselves.
- When did you discover you were a lesbian? How was your experience when you came out of the closet?
When I was a teenager. This was in the 80s in The Netherlands, the period of the second feminist movement. My mother would take me to so-called “women cafes and discos” and there I met all kind of women, among other lesbians. At a certain moment I met one woman with whom I fell in love. We had a love relationship for almost 5 years.
- How would you describe yourself?
I am an analytical entrepreneur, a social innovator, very positive, an initiator but not a finisher. In my private relations I am very faithful, full of passion, I like to spend time with my family and friends, but also love to be in my private space enjoying nature and music. I want to contribute to changes in society but am also realistic that the challenges are big and that I should be happy contributing with a small drop, as all drops help to stop the fire.
- What do you like to do in your free time?
I love to be in nature, listen to music, spend time with my two kids and partner. But I also love to spend time with friends, prepare and eat delicious food, have passionate discussions about all kind of societal issues, and to dance to Latin American music.
- You have been living in Costa Rica for many years. What life event brought you there?
I have now lived for 11 years in total in Costa Rica, with an interruption of 10 years in which we lived in the Netherlands. Together with some students of my university we organized a study tour on sustainable development to Costa Rica in 1994. For four weeks we worked on a couple of assignments for which we had received money that made it possible to travel, and during each weekend we visited one part of the country. During that visit I fell in love with the country and its people.
9. You are married to a woman and have two children, in a country where same-sex marriage has not yet been legalized. What has your personal experience been, and what obstacles have you faced as a lesbian woman in Costa Rica?
In Costa Rica, people are not very open about their sexual orientation. Nevertheless, people respect our relationship and act in a normal way. As long as you don’t express your sexual preference too obviously people will treat you in a ‘normal’ way. However, we don’t have the right to get married in Costa Rica, and our foreign marriage is not recognized by local law. This implies that our children and I cannot get a local residence visa based on our family relationship. I can neither safeguard the pension of my partner. In the past it would not be possible to visit your partner in the hospital, but I think that changed recently. And my partner is not able to get the adoption of the children being recognized in the country.
10. As a lesbian woman, how did you go about becoming a mother? What possibilities and resources were available for you to embrace motherhood?
We have chosen to get pregnant by a known donor. The medical arrangements to make this happen were taken care of in the Netherlands, where we benefited from health insurance coverage and medical aid support.
11. How was your decision received by your friends and relatives?
In a very positive way.
- This year significant developments have taken place in Latin America regarding same-sex marriages and LGBT rights, following the Inter-American Court’s Advisory Opinion which declared same-sex marriages a fundamental right as guaranteed by the American Convention of Human Rights. What are your hopes about the future of same-sex marriages and LGBT rights in general in Latin America?
My hope is that same sex marriages and all differences in regulation between sexual minorities and heterosexuals will be removed, so we all have the opportunity to benefit from the same rights. It is awkward that we are treated in a different way just for the choice we make with whom we want to have a sexual relation and share our private life. This choice doesn’t affect other people at all, and for this reason it is really weird and worrisome that parts of the hetero sexual population as well as religious people defend this discrimination.
I hope that the change we will experience will not only happen at an institutional and regulatory level but also at a more personal level and that people in Latin America will become more open minded on the beauty of living in harmony with different cultures, gender, sexual oriented groups, and that a more inclusive society reduces violence, aggression, frustration and other negative feelings that prevent us from being happy, and creating a prosperous society.
13. Based on both your professional expertise and personal experience from living in the region, what is the greatest challenge women face in Latin America?
Violence and discrimination.
14. What are your hopes for the ELLA International Lesbian Conference that will take place in San José next year?
Joy, inspiration, new contacts, new vibes within the local lesbian movements to innovate the way they try to promote change, access to resources (knowledge, contacts, funding) for the local lesbian community to continue working on creating better conditions for their constituency.
15. What advice would you like to give to lesbian women who are afraid of coming out?
Be sure you are not the only one in that situation, look for women like you so you don’t feel alone, you can feel inspired and you can learn from them how to further develop yourself and be happy as a lesbian.
- Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years as a mother, partner, working professional, and as a woman?
After both my parents passed away, I became aware that planning so much ahead in life doesn’t make sense and would often create stress and discomfort for me. For this reason, I tend to plan my personal dreams and ambitions for not more than one year ahead. I try to check with myself what is important for me to feel happy, which are my personal dreams, and try to define targets I would like to reach at the end of the year. I make an effort to reach them, but I don’t feel frustrated if I don’t reach them all.
At this stage of my life, what is important for me is to find the right balance between my private life in which I want to provide a loving and stimulating environment for my partner, children, family and friends, and my professional life in which I want to share my experiences with my colleagues, develop strategies together with them to increase impact, and to explore new business models both for the organisation I work in as well as the organisations I work together with.
At a very private level, I really enjoy feeling grounded and more reflective. I feel happy with myself and enjoy the things that go well and explore the things that feel uncomfortable to see how I can do them in a different way.
- You lived for many years in Costa Rica, do you plan to stay there for good or do you consider returning to the Netherlands in the near future? And if yes, why?
I love living in Costa Rica and the Netherlands. Both countries have so many beautiful things to offer. I will live in the country that fits best to my own needs and the once of my family. If this brings me to another country, I am also open for that. If I can do it from Costa Rica, that is also great.
- How do you feel as a Dutch lady living in Costa Rica? What do you like and what do you dislike about it?
Costa Rica is a great place to be. Quality of life is really good, and the culture and way people interact with each other is really nice. We as North European people can learn a lot from their warm way of interacting, care for their family and co-citizens, flexibility to respond to unexpected situations in life. But when you live abroad there are always things you miss from your own country, people and culture. I miss the four seasons sometimes. To see the colors of the trees change and to feel the cold wind on your face. The surprise of snow and the explosion of new life in springtime. The long and in-depth conversations with my dearest friends. And I would love for Costaricans to be sometimes a bit more straightforward in their feelings and opinions, as it helps to find solutions for challenges together. I also would like to see that LGBTI rights will be respected and that we will enjoy the same rights as others in society.
- Please tell us about a personal event which particularly marked you in your life.
The death of my parents as it made me aware that life is short and can stop all of a sudden. You really should live each day as if it is the last one.
- What are your dreams? If you could choose – what would you like to happen in your life?
I hope my children stay healthy and develop themselves as happy, independent and inspirational adults. I hope I will be able to share my life with my partner for many more years. And I hope that the current trend of discrimination, greed and short-term thinking changes, and that there are every time more young, inspirational leaders in the public, private and social sector whom will contribute to creating a more inclusive and environmental friendly world, so my children and my children’s children are able to enjoy peace, nature and health in the same way as I was able to enjoy it up to now in my life.