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Empowering women all over the world to reach their full potential

Trailblazer Christine Amour-Levar is on a mission – and she’s not taking no for an answer.

“I am no longer poor. I can now support my family by making bricks and selling them. 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,” said a Rwandan woman to Christine Amour-Levar when she visited the country in Nov 2017 to see the work of one of her charity partners Women for Women International.

“Her honesty and gratitude touched me deeply. The women we met there are courageous, determined and hard- working survivors of a decimated generation. Today, Rwanda has 64 per cent of its seats in parliament held by women, leading the world in female representation,” shared Amour-Levar. The Peak chats with the multi-hyphenate about her mission to empower women everywhere to reach their full potential.

What first set you down this path of women empowerment?

I grew up in the Philippines, surrounded by very strong women. The Philippines is described as a nation of driven women, who directly and indirectly run the family unit, businesses, government agencies and haciendas or plantations. I also became aware of the poverty and inequality around me at a very early age. Mum involved us in charitable community activities whenever she could, and taught my siblings and me that privilege comes with great responsibility – values that I strive to live by and pass on
to my children.

When I moved to Singapore many years later, I set up my first NGO, Women on a Mission, with my co-founders and friends Valerie Boffy and Karine Moge. It combined my passion for sports and corporate experience, and right from the start, our core objective has been to support and empower women via advocacy work and fundraising. We take all-female teams to off the beaten track locations around the world as a way to help women survivors of war, as well as human trafficking, domestic abuse and other forms of violence.

Violence against women is one of the most widespread, persistent and devastating human rights violations in our world today that remains mostly unreported due to the impunity, silence, stigma and shame surrounding it. She is More 2019 aimed to spark a movement towards female empowerment through a global youth art competition, and it’s an honour to co-chair this year’s initiative organised by Impact Investment Exchange (IIX). We must keep the movement going to give these women the voice they deserve.

Can you share how your association with IIX started?

I was drawn to IIX because our values align completely. I was inspired by its drive to bridge the gap between finance and development, as well as build pathways to connect the Wall Streets of the world with the back streets of underserved communities by measuring and unlocking investment capital. More importantly, IIX is the pioneer in impact investments. After starting 11 years ago, its work has expanded to 46 countries and unlocked US$200 million (S$272.8 million) of private-sector capital, as well as impacted more than 80 million underserved communities.

The fact that it has the data to support its work impressed me the most. IIX has been adding value to our most vulnerable communities, much like what I have been doing through my organisations. When asked to join IIX as a committee member for She is More, I accepted almost immediately, knowing that we are fighting for the same cause.

She is More 2019 provided over 17,280 hours of computer literacy training for underserved women living in the slums of Dhaka, Bangladesh, and over 240 hours of art therapy for female survivors of domestic abuse in Singapore. To be able to come together and bring these opportunities to more women this year only gives our initiative a louder voice and more considerable momentum, which is crucial at this time.

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What are your personal experiences that strengthened your resolve to help women?

Over the past few years, through my non-profit work, I have had the opportunity to learn more about the challenges facing women 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 also spoken to women in leadership positions in Kenya, who are ensuring that the young girls in their communities get a chance at a good education. Through working with IIX, I’ve also seen how simple access to technology can give underserved women more opportunities to thrive.

Christine with Durreen Shahnaz of IIX at She is More 2019

Christine Amour-Levar with Durreen Shahnaz, founder of Impact Investment Exchange.

Last year, IIX provided 120 underserved women in Bangladesh with access to 17,280 hours of computer literacy training with the proceeds from She is More. Through this initiative, women received a boost of confidence and access to better-paying employment opportunities to achieve a brighter future for themselves and their families. The great challenge of this age is to give a voice to women everywhere whose experiences go unnoticed and words go unheard. Women are the primary caregivers for most of the world’s children and elderly yet governments, societies and corporate leaders undervalue much of the work we do.

Everywhere in the world today, women are giving birth, raising children, cooking meals, planting crops, running companies and leading countries. There are also those struggling to feed their children, prevented from getting an education, forced into prostitution and denied the right to vote. Those of us who have a voice have a responsibility to speak up for those who cannot.

“Women are the primary caregivers for most of the world’s children and elderly yet governments, societies and corporate leaders undervalue much of the work we do.”

What can we expect from She Is More this year?

This year, with Covid-19, IIX is pushing harder to continue the momentum with the theme #SheisCourage, celebrating women with the courage to lead, the courage to innovate and the courage to change the world. To date, hundreds of artworks depicting Courage have been submitted by creative youth across the world. Winners will have the opportunity to exhibit their artwork virtually at ArtScience Museum, and go for exclusively arranged arts education and training programmes.

Rwanda

Christine Amour-Levar in a village in Rwanda.

She Is More 2020 will culminate in a virtual fundraising gala in November, where art pieces by professional artists and luxury items from partners such as prestigious diamond house Mouawad will be up for bids. Proceeds will go towards IIX’s work in building sustainable livelihoods and Covid-19-resilient communities worldwide.

Now more than ever, we need everyone to come together for this movement that She Is More has sparked to empower vulnerable communities for a better future.

How can men help to push forward the cause of female empowerment?

It is no longer adequate for women to advocate for change and female empowerment alone. Men have important and central roles to play in the fight for gender equality. There are many ways in which they can help to push this agenda forward. Firstly, they can listen to the voices of women in a way that inspires trust and respect.

However, they should refrain from taking centre stage by speaking for women or mansplaining how women should approach gender equality efforts. Secondly, men need to engage in supportive partnerships with women. The best cross-gender relationships are reciprocal and mutually growth-enhancing. Men could share their social capital (influence, information, knowledge and organisational resources) with women’s groups, and ask them instead of assuming how best to support their efforts.

Thirdly, I would also like to see more men in leadership roles push the female empowerment agenda forward. They need to be involved in speaking up and breaking down the barriers that prevent women from feeling truly empowered and safe. This is not happening enough because issues of gender violence such as sexual assault, domestic violence, sexual harassment and the sexual abuse of children are often seen as women’s issues when they are also men’s issues.

If they remain silent about these issues in our society, it allows violence to go unchecked and perpetuate in our families, workplaces, university campuses and everywhere else.

(Related: Singapore Literature Prize gets its first female winner for English poetry)

How can we work together to ensure that the progress we make for female empowerment in society is sustainable?

This is a timely question because the most prominent change brought about by the pandemic has resulted in a huge setback in gender equality as women have been disproportionately affected. To ensure progress continues, we need to have more women in central, decision-making roles at all levels of society. For this to happen, many more men and women will need to be convinced that diversity does matter – and not just in terms of principles but because it also breeds innovation and innovation breeds business success.

Ultimately, diversity is vital for any ecosystem to adapt, grow and thrive in the long term. I am convinced that only then will environmental sustainability, gender equality and peace become a reality. This topic has been the central theme and focus of my life over the past few years.

It is at the very core of who I am today and it is something I intend to pursue for many more years to come. We also need more purpose-driven leaders at the top of corporations and governments; leaders who place their commitment to something other than generating profits.

It is time to put the interests of people and the planet before shareholders’ gain. This commitment to sustainable solutions is increasingly proving to be worth pursuing, and maintaining it will ensure progress remains sustainable. As current business leaders, we are all so fortunate, and, because of this, we should be driven by a great sense of responsibility and the desire to uplift others around us.

(Related: Meet ex-private banker Leon Qiu working to reduce income inequality)