DALLAS — A yearlong fellowship program that aims to help women in the Middle East hone their leadership skills and build a network of support has been launched by former President George W. Bush's policy institute.

"Really, the goal is to empower women to transform their countries," said Charity Wallace, director of the women's initiative at the George W. Bush Institute.

The inaugural group comes from Egypt, which Wallace said was a natural place to start because of the changes the country has been undergoing following last year's uprising, which ousted President Hosni Mubarak.

"With the significant transition and change that's happening in Egypt, we know that we need to have strong women in the conversation now," said Wallace, who added that they plan to host at least one fellowship program a year with a focus on countries affected by the Arab Spring.

They plan future fellowship programs — the signature of the women's initiative — with women from Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

Former first lady Laura Bush, who chairs the women's initiative, said that the idea for the fellowship grew out of former President Bush's belief that women will lead the freedom movement.

"The whole goal of it is that they will all be equipped to be leaders," Laura Bush said, noting many of the women already are.

"Democracy is not easy to build and we were slow ourselves," she said. Bush also added that in the U.S., slavery was once allowed, women didn't always have the right to vote and that it took the civil rights movement to combat racial discrimination.

On Thursday, Laura Bush will give a keynote address before a town hall discussion with women from the program to mark International Women's Day.

The 14 Egyptian women participating in the program come from a variety of backgrounds — business, politics, health, media, law and education — and include both Muslims and Christians.

The program began last month in Dallas, where activities included leadership seminars at Southern Methodist University. They also traveled to New York City, Washington, D.C., and Silicon Valley before separating to spend time in cities across the U.S. with their respective mentors.

The women will now return to Egypt, where training sessions will continue for the rest of the year.

Heba Wahsh, a dentist who is currently working on a master's degree in public health, said she hopes to create an organization to help children in Egypt increase their health awareness and improve their leadership skills.

She has high hopes for her country's future following the revolution, saying that while the situation there is challenging, there is also a great potential for change.

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"I think (the status of women) is improving and it will improve a lot. Especially after the revolution, everybody, men and women, we got the chance to believe that change will happen," she said.

"We need more equality. And I think women are ready to fight for this equality," Wahsh said. She hopes to see more women in politics and a shift in a mentality that women don't deserve to be equal.

The Bush institute is part of the George W. Bush President Center that is currently under construction on the SMU campus. The center is set to be completed early next year and will include the presidential library and museum.


George W. Bush Presidential Center, http://www.bushcenter.com/