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Remarks by President George W. Bush at the Global Women’s Network Summit

September 22, 2015

DALLAS, Texas

Thank you, Margaret, for that fine introduction.  The purpose of this summit is to help and encourage women to be leaders in their communities, and Margaret Spellings is a strong leader for the Bush Center. 

I am fortunate to have a lot of strong women in my life.  I was raised by one, Barbara Bush.  I married one, and Laura Bush was our greatest First Lady.  (Applause.)  Please don’t tell Mrs. Obama or my mother.  (Laughter.)  We’re raising two strong women, Barbara and Jenna, and we’re really proud of their accomplishments.  And now we’re grandparents of two strong women-to-be.  (Laughter.) 

I also want to thank the First Lady of the United States, who joined us today via videoconference.  I want to thank the First Lady of Rwanda, Jeannette Kagame; of Zambia, Esther Lungu; and Sophia Martelly of Haiti.  I want to thank you all very much for coming.  (Applause.)  And of course we’re thrilled to welcome back to Dallas the birthday-girl-to-be – of course we’re all going to have birthdays, but hers happens to be tomorrow:  Cherie Blair.  (Applause.)

This is the third straight year that we have held this summit for women’s issues.  I want to thank the organizers.  I mean after all we went to Tanzania, then we were in Washington, and now I have a really short commute.  (Laughter.)  I want to thank all the people who have traveled so far for coming – our sponsors, our partners, and distinguished guests.  Last night at dinner I was so pleased to see the number of young leaders who are here, and people from around the globe.  I hope that you have found this to be a worthwhile venture.  Those of us at the Bush Center certainly think it is. 

You know, in the post-Presidency, you have some choices to make.  When you’re President, things come to your desk that you didn’t anticipate; you deal with the circumstances of the time.  When you’re out of the Presidency, you create your own agenda.  I thought long and hard about what I was going to do.  Of course, I’ve written two books – startled some people.  (Laughter).  Even more startling is, I’m a painter.  (Laughter.)  But that wasn’t enough.  Laura and I wanted to do some things that mattered and that were dear to our hearts, and one of those areas is to help women and girls around the world – especially on the continent of Africa.  Laura is very much engaged in these programs, as am I.  And we have taken some important steps in the past, and today, to improve the health of women and girls around the world.

Some Americans ask, by the way, don’t we have enough problems of our own?  What in the heck are you doing dealing in other parts of the world?  And my answer to them, when I was President and now, is twofold.  One, I believe that to whom much is given, much is required.  Those of us fortunate to live in the United States are blessed, and we have a moral obligation to help when the situation is dire. 

Secondly, helping people elsewhere serves our national interests.  It’s in our interest to help women and girls deal with disease.  (Applause.)  From an economic perspective, we want our friends to be viable trading partners.  And it’s hard to have a viable economy when women are sick.  We need to worry about our national security, and there’s nothing more debilitating for a society than to have those who are fortunate turn their backs on those who are less fortunate and in particular those who are susceptible to recruitment by thugs.  And so my summary is:  it’s in our interest, and at the Bush Center we’re living out that interest. 

The question is, how can we help effectively?  I mean, we can hold meetings, and they’re interesting.  The dinners can be okay.  (Laughter.)  Actually it was pretty good last night.  (Laughter.)  We believe in starting with the basic truth, which is this:  The basic unit of society is family, and the people who care most about families – nurture families – are women.  So if the basic unit for a healthy society is family, we have to focus on women.  A dozen years ago, African women were dying from HIV/AIDS at catastrophic rates.  There was a pandemic taking place on the continent of Africa, and many of the victims were women of reproductive age.  Their deaths inflicted multiple tragedies.  They left young children as orphans.  The disease robbed communities of their most productive members.  Yet advances in medicine had made AIDS treatable at a relatively low cost.  So I decided along with others, some of whom are in this room, that America would not stand by and watch a generation of Africans die of a disease that we had the capability of treating.  So I worked with members of both parties, interested parties, people who care about government, to launch PEPFAR. 

The results of PEPFAR are inspiring.  I wish most Americans knew that their generosity –(applause) – I mean it’s one of these facts that I know would lift the nation’s spirit if they knew that in 2003, fewer than 50,000 people in Africa were receiving the drugs they needed to survive, and over the past twelve years, PEPFAR has delivered life-saving medicine to more than 7.7 million people.  (Applause.)  Including more than 5 million women and girls.  Millions more have benefited from AIDS testing and education about how to prevent the disease. 

As a result, the people of Africa have turned the tide against AIDS.  And they are now striving for a goal that once seemed impossible: an AIDS-free generation.  You know, the success of PEPFAR revealed another heartbreak.  Imagine going into a village in Africa and a woman who had been saved from AIDS was dying of cervical cancer.   I can’t think of anything more dispiriting than having your spirits lifted and then crushed.  And so at the Bush Center, we decided to do something about it, as have others in this audience.  More than 85 percent of cervical cancer cases are in the developing world.  Every two minutes, a woman in the developing world dies from the disease.  In sub-Saharan Africa alone, cervical cancer takes more than 50,000 lives a year.  To me, that means that we must act again.  That we must do something, as opposed to read statistics.  Breast cancer claims thousands more.  And the cycle of poverty begins.  Mothers die, children are abandoned, societies become less productive.  And of course, most of those deaths are needless. 

Like AIDS, cervical and breast cancer are treatable and often times preventable.  A simple vaccination can prevent HPV infection, and early testing and treatment can stop both forms of cancer before they become fatal.  So four years ago, we partnered with PEPFAR, the Susan G. Komen Foundation, and UNAIDS to launch what we call Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon.  The pink ribbon symbolizes the fight against women’s cancer; the red ribbon represents the fight against AIDS.  The principle behind Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon is pretty straightforward: A woman who survives AIDS should not be left to die from a treatable or preventable cancer.  And neither should her mother, or her sister, or a friend who does not have AIDS.

Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon has achieved encouraging results.  The program started in three countries: Botswana, Tanzania, and Zambia.  In each country, we have built on the health care infrastructure and public-private partnerships that have made PEPFAR a success.  We’ve worked with local partners; we have trained doctors and nurses to screen for and treat cervical and breast cancer.  So far, they have screened nearly 200,000 women for signs of cervical cancer and more than 6,000 for breast cancer.  That’s a pretty good start.  I emphasize start, because there’s more work to be done. 

We have traveled to Africa several times to witness the work of Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon.  Laura and I have had the privilege of refurbishing clinics.  I’ve had the privilege of dancing.  (Laughter.)  One lady waiting to be screened said I needed to work on my moves.  (Laughter.)  We have me the dedicated health care workers.  We have met doctors and nurses who use household vinegar to find cervical lesions, and in most cases, women who need treatment get it immediately.

We are also making progress on prevention.  With support from Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon, Botswana and Zambia have launched programs to vaccinate adolescent girls against HPV. 

More than 40,000 girls in those countries have received the vaccine so far.  Last night I talked to the Minister of Health, Dorcas Magkato, who is with us from Botswana.  She told me that her country is expanding the vaccinations.  I told her to tell the President thanks, because that’s exactly the kind of model we want.  We want to help these programs get started, then have the governments take over.  And in this case vaccinate as many young girls as they possibly can.  And in Zambia and Tanzania, these programs are going to expand as well.  So here’s the purpose and the idea:  set up Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon as a catalyst for First Ladies to grab a hold of it and say this is an initiative that supported my people.  And by the way when you do so, you’re going to make your president look good.  (Laughter.)            

In addition to our government and international partners that we’ve had, we are now expanding.  There are more than 20 private sector organizations from Europe and the United States joining in this effort – including some of the world’s most advanced medical research companies, distinguished charitable foundations, and local African organizations committed to making a difference.  And of course one of our goals here at the Bush Center along with our partners is to continue to expand the network and encourage the support. And we’re in two new countries - Namibia and Ethiopia.  I want to applaud the First Lady of Ethiopia for her strong commitment, after all she chairs Ethiopia’s National Cancer Committee. So one of the purposes of the First Ladies summit is to give examples where First Ladies can make a significant difference in their countries. And here are a couple of such examples.

Although the burden of cervical cancer and breast cancer falls hardest on Africa, the impact of these diseases reaches far beyond.  The burden of breast and cervical cancer is high in many parts of Latin America—especially in rural areas, on the edges of big cities.  We are studying possible countries and partners in Latin America, and we expect to make a decision by the end of this year where to expand in this hemisphere. 

I am also pleased to announce that Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon has recently been established as an independent non-profit organization.  The program will retain its close affiliation with the Bush Center, and Laura and I will continue to devote the rest of our walking days to this program.  But as an independent entity, Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon will have greater flexibility to expand, to make grants, and to raise funds around the world.  Although the structure will change, the mission will not: Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon will continue leading coordinated action with partners around the world to save women’s lives from cancer, so they can support their families and strengthen their communities.

You know when you hear these statistics and look around the world it can be discouraging to people. Sometimes the tendency is for people to say, “Well, it’s none of our business. Who cares? The task is too hard.” Kind of a pervasive pessimism. That’s not what we feel here, and that’s not how people in this room feel. We’re optimistic that we can solve problems. We’ve seen them solved in the past, and we will do so again. I’m particularly optimistic about the number of young people. Of course, everybody’s young when you’re 69. (Laughter.)

But the people are 20 and 30 years-old, our daughters’ and sons’ ages. They step forward. They’re great social entrepreneurs, many of whom are here. You’ve got to be optimistic when you hear about their desire to help. Their goal of making the world a better place. And so I hope you leave here with the sense that we can do a lot of things together, particularly if we focus, and in our mind, there’s not greater focus than liberating women from the clutches of tyranny and the clutches of disease.

Thank you for your hearts, and thank you for your time. (Applause.)

END 2:25 P.M. CDT