Credit: Lawrence Teo

“Growing up in the Philippines, I was a tomboy. I didn’t want to wear dresses. Instead, I wore pants and called myself Joe,” Christine Amour-Levar tells me, chuckling as she recalls her childhood. The Singapore-based French-Swiss-Filipina philanthropist, environmental advocate, and marketing and communications consultant adds that she has always had a penchant for sports.

“Football, basketball, track… sports has always been something that I loved. In fact, I was playing for my high school varsity team when I first visited Singapore from the Philippines at 15, for a football tournament against one of the international schools here,” she reveals. She eventually moved to Singapore permanently in 2005 from Paris, after her company at that time relocated her here.

Christine Amour-Levar, founder of Women on a Mission and Her Planet Earth

Her passion for athletics meant that she grew up “wanting an international career that had something to do with sports”. However, it was only after she met French entrepreneur Valerie Boffy, who had summited Mount Everest in support of Women For Women International, a charity that champions women survivors of war, that she found a calling.

“To see someone do something so brave in support of other women in need, that really moved and impacted me,” says Christine.

How it started

Deciding to combine her love for sports and adventure with her experience in marketing and consultancy, Christine, together with Valerie, and French photographer and art curator Karine Moge, decided to set up the non-profit Women On A Mission (WOAM) in 2012. The core objective of the NGO is to support vulnerable and abused women who are affected by violence through fundraising and advocacy work.

Expeditions are at the centre of WOAM’s fundraising campaigns. Each one takes months of planning – Christine usually starts as early as nine months before the actual trip – and the challenging all-female expeditions take place in off-the-beaten- track locations around the world, as a way to increase visibility and raise funds that go to a chosen charity partner. Past partners have included UN Women and Aware Singapore, which were chosen for their programmes dedicated to advocating for women’s rights.

Her Planet Earth organised a pioneering expedition in 2019 to trek 100km across Northern Kenya’s remote Karisia Hills to raise funds for the Conservation International charity.

The by-invitation expeditions, which have previously included a desert crossing expedition in Iran and a chilly nomadic trek in Siberia, are also designed to push limits. “The objective is to invite participants to step far outside of their comfort zone, so yes, the trips are often physically, mentally and emotionally gruelling, and the women are thus required to train regularly and prepare diligently prior to our departure,” explains Christine. Training sessions are typically dependent on the upcoming trek.

While there are on average eight to 14 participants for each expedition, the composition of the teams often vary in age, career profiles, nationality and more. “I’ve found this to be an incredible advantage because it contributes to the richness of our interactions, and in many ways, to our competitive advantage. Our unity of purpose has always been a great strength, but it is our diversity that has been at the heart of our powerful sisterhood, and which has made our time together so precious,” she says.

Taking action

Empowering other women has always been a topic of importance to Christine, having grown up “in the Philippines surrounded by very strong women”. She elaborates: “Women in Philippine society have always enjoyed a greater share of equality. In fact, the Philippines is described as a nation of driven women, who directly and indirectly run the family unit, businesses, government agencies and haciendas, or plantation estates.”

In March 2020, Her Planet Earth became the first all-female team to succeed in biking across the frozen lands of the Arctic Circle Trail of Greenland.

Besides her mother, who taught Christine and her siblings on the importance of compassion by “involving us in charitable activities in the community whenever she could”, she’s also driven by the various inspiring women she meets from her expeditions.

“Through my non-profit work, I have had the opportunity to learn more about the challenges that women face around the world. I have met mothers in Rwanda who come together regularly to discuss nutrition, family planning and the health of their children. I have spoken to women in Kenya who are taking leadership positions in their local communities to ensure that young girls get a chance at a good education,” she reflects.

Another cause she holds close to heart is environmental conservation, which she views as “important to preserve the natural world and to prevent it from collapsing as a result of human activities”. She decided to bring together both her passions by establishing another NGO in 2017 called Her Planet Earth.

“In 2050, there could possibly be as many as 1.2 billion climate refugees. But what I truly discovered through my research is that, in many countries around the world, women are the most vulnerable to climate change and environmental degradation, partly because women make up the larger share of the agricultural workforce – and this is particularly true in Asia.”

The Her Planet Earth team trekking the world’s largest cave, Son Doong, in central Vietnam

Her Planet Earth specifically raises awareness and funds for underprivileged women affected by climate change. “Basically, empowering women for a healthier planet,” adds Christine.

Her Planet Earth runs separately from WOAM, with participants for both non-profits differing slightly. “With Her Planet Earth, I have a younger support base, with many millennials and Gen-Zs on our teams,” she says. “Climate anxiety is affecting the youth, and I believe that the younger generation really do care deeply about what’s happening with the planet.”

Unlike WOAM trips, expeditions under Her Planet Earth naturally have more of an environmental focus, and often take place in countries that can best teach participants the impact of climate change. Additionally, the NGO also runs coral restoration trips and visits to wildlife sanctuaries, where participants can get real hands-on conservation experience.

In fact, the non-profit’s most recent trip – and Christine’s first expedition after the lifting of Covid-19 travel restrictions – took place in May, where a team of female divers headed to the Philippines for a coral restoration trip to support the Sulubaai Environmental Foundation.

“We also met with women from the local communities, consisting of leaders, fisher-folk, teachers and more, to help raise awareness about the importance of protecting our environment. The objective of the open forum was to have constructive discussions on how best to protect nature in this region,” she recalls.

Each expedition that Christine embarks on requires high levels of endurance and plenty of training.

To greater heights

Her next expedition, which occurred in June, was for a different initiative – one aside from her non-profit groups. As part of Switzerland Tourism’s 100% Women initiative, which aims to raise the profile of women in mountain and outdoor sports, she joined 79 female mountaineers from 25 other countries to set a record for the world’s largest all-female rope team to scale the 4,164m Breithorn peak, located on the border between Switzerland and Italy.

“The trip was a beautiful experience,” she recalls with a wistful smile. “As the women on the trip had different levels of mountaineering experience, it reminded me how important it is to encourage women to actually step out of their comfort zone. The experience of a challenge really changes you, and for me, it was really beautiful to see how the women became more confident and empowered after the climb.”

In September, she embarked on WOAM’s 11th expedition to climb mountains in Kyrgyzstan, in order to raise US$100,000 (S$137,000) for women survivors of war. She has since managed to raise US$50,683 of their target.

Switzerland Tourism’s 100% Women initiative brought together 80 female mountaineers to scale the Breithorn peak.

And while the return of travel is certainly welcome, the philanthropist had been keeping busy when the pandemic grounded all expeditions by penning a book, Wild Wisdom, which was published in late August by Penguin Random House.

“[The book] touches on my learnings, from navigating the heartache of my divorce from my ex-husband and finding love again as a single mother of two young children, and being blessed with two more healthy children, to how I founded two NGOs that have similar core missions: raising awareness and funds for female empowerment and environmental conservation via challenging expeditionary travel,” she says.

“Writing this book has been a wonderful exercise in introspection, and has made me realise that everyone should write their story, whether for publication, to just to keep in a drawer or beam up to the universe.”

Christine pictured with some female survivors of war in Rwanda.

2022 also marks the 10th anniversary of WOAM, while Her Planet Earth celebrates its fifth anniversary. What does she have planned for the future of both NGOs? “A lot! In terms of the longer term view for both WOAM and Her Planet Earth, we were already thinking about franchising, even prepandemic. Obviously, the pandemic has put a bit of a hold on things, but my hope is that there are other ambassadors who would like to start these movements in their own home countries,” she says. “But it’s not easy – there’s a lot of work around the NGOs that is not glamorous, and requires a lot of commitment.”

Still, no matter how tough the expeditions can be, she remains dedicated to the cause. “Empowering and supporting women, especially vulnerable women, has become my life’s mission,” she asserts.