DALLAS — Former first lady Laura Bush on Friday introduced a group of women from Tunisia as the latest participants in the George W. Bush Institute's fellowship program that helps women in the Middle East and North Africa hone leadership skills.
"It's important to invest in women and that's what we're doing at the Bush Institute," Bush said at the Friday event in which she also recognized the Egyptian women who participated in the Women's Initiative Fellowship last year.
She said the yearlong program "equips and empowers women to become effective leaders in their home countries and gives them the skills to start to build and establish a strong civil society."
Bush was introduced at the Dallas event marking International Women's Day by her husband, former President George W. Bush, who said free societies yield peace, but those societies take time to develop. He also said there has to be a "patient application of leadership in the development of a civil society and I firmly believe that women will lead the movement."
The fellowship pairs women who work in education, health, business, politics, law and media with American women who work in those same fields. The program started in 2012 and the first two groups were from Egypt. There are 17 women from Tunisia participating this year.
The women will spend about a month in the U.S., attending leadership training at Southern Methodist University — where the George W. Bush Presidential Center, which includes the Bush Institute, is located — and visiting companies and institutions across the U.S., including the New York Stock Exchange, the State Department and internet companies in California.
Laura Bush, who chairs the Women's Initiative, said the program helps the women build a support network.
"When these fellows return to their home countries the women have each other and they can introduce each other to their colleagues and their families," she said.
She noted that few of last year's Egyptian women knew each other when they entered the program.
"Today, they are a band of sisters, bonded in their experience, and they've become integral to each other's success," Bush said. "They've worked together to advance individual projects and to build new initiatives ... They've cascaded their skills to others and developed more women leaders in Egypt."
One of the Egyptian fellows, Hadeer Maher, a social entrepreneur, said networking was a concept she knew little about when she started the program, and soon found herself talking to "top-notch" business people.
"I found myself more confident," Maher said.
George W. Bush Institute, http://www.bushcenter.org/george-w-bush-institute