From crossing one of the most treacherous deserts on earth to accompanying reindeer herders across Siberia, the gutsy female volunteers of non-profit organisation Women On A Mission (WOAM) have achieved them all in record-breaking feats in order to bring issues of female abuse and violence to light.
This month, WOAM’s founding partners Christine Amour-Levar and Valerie Boffy will lead a team of 11 women on an expedition to Bhutan that includes a three-day stand-up paddleboarding journey to raise awareness and $25,000 in funds to build shelters for Renew (Respect, Educate, Nurture and Empower Women). The charity founded by Bhutan’s Queen Mother Sangay Choden Wangchuck empowers, cares for and supports women and children, especially survivors of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. It is the first and only organisation of its kind in Bhutan.
Christine says, “We wanted a water challenge after organising treks and rock-climbing types of expeditions in the past. We saw this as a chance to come up with a truly unique expedition in one of the most beautiful and scenic countries in the world.”
The expedition team, comprising participants based in Singapore, Dubai and the Philippines, have been doing fitness and stand-up paddleboard training since last October to prepare for the week-long trip. Each participant also forked out $5,800 to cover the costs including flights, food, lodging and activities.
The women will set off on April 23 from Bhutan’s capital Thimphu and end at the Taktsang Palphug Monastery, the famous Tiger’s Nest mountainside temple. In between, they will attempt their stand‑up paddleboarding journey through the icy rivers of the Punakha Valley as well as white‑water rafting, hiking and camping around the Paro Valley. The team will also meet survivors of domestic violence at one of Renew’s shelters, Gawailing Happy Home, to conduct interactive leadership development workshops and share with them about the women empowerment work WOAM does around the world.
The Queen Mother says, “Violence against women and girls through physical, sexual, psychological and economic abuse is one of the most widespread violation of human rights. A collective effort at the local, regional and global level is needed to stop this. I’m delighted and encouraged that WOAM is supporting Renew in this meaningful collaborative effort of working towards a violence-free society.”
Now into its fifth year of operation, WOAM has raised over $700,000 to support organisations that champion women’s advancement around the world, including UK-based humanitarian organisation Women for Women International, which supports female survivors of war, as well as local charities such as Aware (Association of Women for Action and Research), Pertapis Centre for Women and Girls, and Aidha, a non-governmental organisation that empowers domestic workers through skills training
Besides organising physically demanding—and extremely challenging—four- to 14-day expeditions that include crossing Iran’s Lut desert in scorching heat and cycling through the amazing landscape of Cambodia’s Siem Reap, WOAM also raises funds through ticketed events and auctions, as well as through the individual fund-raising efforts of expedition participants.
“All our expeditions are self-funded by each participant and 100 per cent of the proceeds is redistributed to the chosen charities,” says Christine. “Committing to a mentally and physically challenging voyage in order to raise funds for the less fortunate demonstrates a personal drive and solid commitment to the cause. It’s very different from raising funds via events and talks.”
First-time participant Ann Gacutan, a Filipino media and sports marketing specialist based in Singapore, was inspired to join the Bhutan expedition so that she could interact first-hand with Renew’s women survivors. “I wanted to see how we can help and encourage them in their challenges, while learning about their culture and environment.”
There have been rough moments in WOAM’s journey. Christine, who is a veteran adventurer, and Valerie, a 2012 Mount Everest summit conqueror, had to manage the disappointment of some teammates who were unable to reach the summit of Jebel Khazali, the toughest mountain in Jordan’s Wadi Rum desert, and have heard heart-wrenching stories of abuse from the women and young girls they reach out to.
Valerie says, “Having such privileged lives comes with a sense of responsibility. We want to apply the same determination and force we put into our expeditions to making a difference in the lives of women deprived of the most basic needs, the rights to education and the right to live in peace with respect and decency.”
Photography: Max Chan/101Teamwork
Art Direction: Jana Tan
Hair: Ann Lin/Athens Salon
Make-Up: Benedict Choo and Nikki Fu/Indigo Artisans, using Shu Uemura
Location: FOC Sentosa
Other Images: Women On A Mission