This Singapore Social Entrepreneur Just Set A World Record To Empower Women
Christine Amour-Levar’s social organisation raises funds for women empowerment. Her bold expeditions are testament to her commitment.
by Sandhya Mahadevan /
August 12, 2022
Courtesy of Switzerland Tourism – Christine Amour-Levar at the summit to Breithorn, Swiss Alps, as part of the world's longest all women rope team
“I believe that life is a succession of circumstances, coincidences and opportunities. And these choices we make, at any given point, define our destiny,” says Christine Amour-Levar, noting the serendipitous circumstances that led her to where she is today.
Born to a French-Swiss father and Fillipina mother, Amour-Levar today is the cofounder of Women On A Mission (WOAM), a non-governmental Organisation (NGO) that is committed to the uplifting of impoverished and abused women all around the world.
Amour-Levar’s focus on women empowerment goes back to the positive influences surrounding her as a child. “I grew up in the Philippines, surrounded by very strong women. The Philippines is often described as a nation of driven women, who directly and indirectly run the family units, businesses, government agencies and haciendas or plantation estate,” she explains. On the same count, she was exposed to the poverty and inequality around her from young through charitable community activities her parents involved her and her siblings in – “they taught us that privilege comes with great responsibility – values that I strive to live by and pass onto my children today” she adds.
Amour-Levar moved to Singapore 16 years ago following a successful corporate career in marketing and communications in the United States, Europe and Japan. As she describes it, from then on, a series of circumstances led her to her calling. She met her cofounders Valerie Boffy, who had just summitted Everest in support of a charity called Women for Women International, that champions women survivors of war, and her friend Karine Moge. Valerie’s selfless act “hit me in the gut”, she recalls.
It also made her introspect on the life she had been blessed with, the opportunities that formatted her career and personal triumphs. “It made me realise how lucky I had been in my life thus far. I have grown up in a loving home, had the chance to receive a good education and have had so many opportunities in my life and in my career. At the time, I was happily married for a second time, and had also just given birth to my fourth child. I felt I had so many blessings in my life, and as a result, I had this overpowering sense and feeling that it was time for me to use my skills and experience to give back, to do more, and especially, to support other women in need,” she adds.
Together they decided to fight further for the empowerment of women who are crippled by various obstacles, from the horrors of war to domestic violence to societal prejudices and economic segregation. A few years later she founded HER Planet Earth that helps raise awareness and funds for underprivileged women affected by climate change – “basically empowering women for a healthier planet”, she adds. Both are volunteer-based organisations, and the teammates on each expedition pay for their own travel costs and are also asked to fundraise for their well-established charity partners, who then redistribute the donations to the women and girls in their programmes.
Recently, she was selected to “represent” Singapore for a trek to Breithorn in the Swiss Alps – on the border of Switzerland and Italy – organised by the Switzerland Tourism. Not all treks are made equal and summitting the 4,164m mountain is not unheard of either. Yet it had few firsts tagged to it. It was an entirely women-led trek of 80 women from 25 countries around the world. Amour-Levar was the obvious choice here, given her passion for mountaineering and female empowerment scaled the mountain in June this year, raising the profile of women in mountain and outdoor sport.
Here, she shares about that experience, her motivation behind her work and more.
This Singapore Social Entrepreneur Just Set A World Record To Empower Women
What was the attraction for the Breithorn trek? How did it feel to be part of the world's longest women's rope team?
It was a 100% Women Peak Challenge with its goal of encouraging more women to push their limits and break down any gender barriers that undoubtedly still exist in the outdoor space, and in mountaineering especially, is much needed and truly inspiring. And with the added objective of putting more women at the top of Switzerland, literally and figuratively, the climb was right up my alley and very much in line with my values.
It felt incredibly empowering and the vibe was absolutely amazing. Normally the teams I take on expeditions with me are composed of 10 to 14 women. This time, because we were 80 women, it demanded a completely different level of coordination and logistics, but the energy was also multiplied.
Additionally, the conditions on the day of the climb were spectacular. We could not have asked for a better day to summit. Blue skies, barely a cloud on the horizon, some wind but not too much, mostly on the summit ridge. We were roped up with a guide in teams of four, and then we proceeded on the trail one group at a time, in close formation, to form the longest rope team in the world!
As a result, we all summited and succeeded in setting a world record in the process. And to me, this achievement, combined with the strong spirit of sisterhood on such a large scale, made the experience even more unique and unforgettable.
You have been on numerous expeditions as part of Women On A Mission. Any favourites?
I have organised close to 20 expeditions so far and taken hundreds of women on expeditions with me over the last decade. While it’s hard to pick a favourite one, I would have to say that my very first one to Everest Base Camp will always have a special place in my heart. The climb turned out to be the journey of a lifetime and a truly transformative experience for us all.
Additionally, the Base Camp of Everest in the Himalayas from which countless attempts on the summit of the Goddess of all mountains have been made and continue to be made every year, commands nothing but respect and humility. At an altitude of 5,364m (17,598 ft), the camp is higher in altitude than any mountain in the Alps. This trek is considered one of the most worthwhile on the planet because of the region’s spectacular mountain peaks, the hard days of hiking required to reach it and the kindness and rich culture of the local people in this part of the world.
What are some things that you notice women struggling with around the world?
Through my work with my NGOs I’ve gained a much better understanding of the issue’s women face around the world because of the gender inequality that exists. Unfortunately, women are disproportionately affected and more vulnerable when it comes to armed conflict, sexual violence, climate change and pandemics even. However, what is encouraging and also inspiring to me, is that all the data points to the fact that women are a huge part of the solution. And the more we empower, educate, support and invest in women, the better it bodes for the world.
Women with more education have fewer children, and the children they do have are healthier. Maternal and infant mortality rates are lower for educated women. Girls who stay in school longer are less likely to marry as children or against their will, they also have lower rates of HIV/AIDS and malaria, and their agricultural plots are more productive while their families are also better nourished. Without a doubt, strong women build stronger communities and nations.
One very dear Filipina friend of mine called Astrid Tuminez’s life is a true testament to just how profoundly education can impact and change lives. Astrid grew up in the slums of Iloilo the Philippines, as one of seven children. Her family had so little money that she only had one pair of socks that she washed once a week. She had to plug the holes in her shoes with lollipop wrappers when it rained. The arc of her life changed when she was five years old, as Catholic nuns invited her and her sisters to join one of the best convent schools in Iloilo. Astrid excelled at school and didn’t stop there. Thanks to the scholarships she received, she went to on to study at Harvard and MIT. Finishing up with a PhD in political science. Astrid assisted in peace negotiations between the United States, Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Mindanao, Philippines during her time at the US Institute of Peace, and later became the Vice-Dean of the Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. Today, she is the seventh – and first female – president of Utah Valley University in the United States which has close to 40,000 students. It all started because she was given a chance at scholarships and a good education and because she fought every step of the way to build a better life for herself and her family. She is a true inspiration to me and many others.
What was the moment that made you feel that you were on the right track?
One of the most satisfying moments in the last few years for me, was not on a trek or an expedition, it was actually on a visit to Rwanda in Africa in November 2017. I was there to see the work of one of my charity partners, Women for Women International.
Rwanda is a fascinating country that has risen from the ashes of a civil war and genocide to become one of the fastest growing economies on the African continent. While I was there, one graduate from a programme we funded, looked me in the eye and said proudly: “I am no longer poor. I can now support my family by making bricks and selling them as part of my cooperative. My children go to school, and we have enough to eat. I have you and your team of women to thank for my good fortune.”
Her honesty and gratitude moved me, but it was her confidence and her resilience that inspired me deeply. The women we met in Rwanda are courageous, determined, hardworking survivors of a decimated generation. And I really saw first-hand how empowering and supporting women helps them grow stronger and the ripple effects it has on their communities. Today Rwanda has 64 per cent of its seats in parliament held by women, leading the world in female representation. Now if Rwanda can do, any country can!
What have your expeditions taught you about life itself?
Our unique expeditions take us to some of the most inhospitable and remote places in the world – and I’ve learnt so much as a result of these unique experiences with teams of women.
It has been an incredibly humbling and formative experience for me personally. These expeditions have forced me to push my limits on multiple occasions – really testing my mental, physical and emotional resilience. And one of the greatest lessons from these past few years has been that adversity breeds growth and resilience. I have realised that some of the experiences that at the time felt like the most miserable and desolate were, in fact, the most formative and enriching. I now understand that our greatest achievement as a team came in the face of the greatest adversity, and that true growth and resilience only come from challenge, from persevering, from having grit, from stepping away from what is comfortable, and having the courage to step into the unknown.
This is not true just of travel – no matter where you are in the world you can seek and find adventure by opening your mind and testing your own courage
What is in the future for you? Tell me about your next expedition and future projects.
My next expedition will be to Kyrgyzstan in September 2022, where I will be taking my WOAM team to the Tien Shan mountain range and the ancient Silk Road with the objective of raising US$100,000 for women survivors of war. The group is made up of 13 intrepid women of diverse nationalities and backgrounds. Most are based in Singapore but some will be coming from the Dubai and Europe. While they are all incredibly well accomplished in their careers, they are equally passionate about supporting charitable causes and helping the less privileged. The funds we raise will go to support programmes run by our charity partners Women for Women International to support education and livelihood opportunities for women in Ukraine, Syria and Afghanistan.
And I am also excited to share that I am coming out with a new book this August 2022 called Wild Wisdom: Life Lessons from Leading Teams to some of the Most Inhospitable Places in the World, published by Penguin Random House. It combines lessons about navigating life with the narrative of a travel memoir and recounts the story of the all-female expeditions I has led across the globe this past decade, from regions of the Arctic circle to the coldest, windiest and most remote continent on earth, Antarctica.
Ultimately, this is a story about roots and values, sisterhood and adventure, pushing limits and the power of our common humanity and compassion to drive change and impact the world for the better.