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The Next Chapter for Women in the Birthplace of the Arab Spring

December 19, 2013 5 minute Read by Charity Wallace

This week marks the third anniversary of the birth of the Arab Spring.  When Mohamed Bouazizi, a mid-20s vegetable vendor from Tunisia, grew so desperate about his future, he set himself on fire in protest of the politically oppressive regime of Zine el Abdine ben Ali. In doing so, it ignited protests around the Middle East and North Africa.  His act led to the demise of the Ben Ali regime and the beginning of a movement that started with great hope and optimism.  People on the street of Bourguiba Avenue and in Tahrir Square felt liberated and emboldened to use their voices to demand change.  Three years after the exhilarating beginnings of the Arab Spring, the region now finds itself disillusioned and grappling with the challenges of forming new and thriving democracies.  Despite often alarming news, there remain bright spots that give reason for cautious optimism and hope – most notably, the women.

I had the great privilege of serving as an International Election Observer with the International Republican Institute for Tunisia’s election in October 23, 2011.  I was struck by the hope and determination of the Tunisian citizens.  Deployed to the rural village of Beja, I watched as smartly dressed Tunisians, young and old, men and women, patiently stood in line for hours to ensure they were able to vote in this historic election.   I have a particularly profound memory of an elderly woman who, after waiting in a long line, was turned away from a polling station as she was not registered at that particular station.  She was told to travel to another town, about 10 kilometers away, to vote.  She was so determined to vote that she traveled on a rickety bus and walked several kilometers to make sure she was part of history --that her voice was heard on this historic day.

Tunisia has fared better than most of the other Arab Spring countries.  They elected a Constituent Assembly in 2011 for the purpose of writing their new constitution.  The Islamic party won the majority of the seats in the Assembly and has wisely been measured in their approach.  The Ennahda party seems to have learned some important lessons from their neighbors in Egypt –stepping down earlier this week following growing disapproval and calls for their resignation.  A new, secular prime minister, Mehdi Jomaa, has been designated.  He has the task of leading the country toward a progressive and stable future.  To gain that promising future, the country must maintain rights and opportunities for women.

Studies show that when women are given opportunity and able to contribute to society, countries are more stable and prosperous.  To strengthen the abilities and role of women worldwide, the Women’s Initiative Fellowship at the Bush Institute equips and empowers women from the Middle East and North Africa to become effective leaders, develop an expansive and valuable network of women, and build a strong civil society in their respective countries.  Over the last two years, the Women’s Initiative Fellowship has trained and equipped 33 women from Egypt to develop projects in human rights, media, business, health, and more -- all of which support women and youth in their communities to realize their potential and improve their country.  These fellows cascade what they have learned as part of the program to other women in their networks, thus creating a multiplier effect. 

In 2014, the Women’s Initiative Fellowship is expanding to Tunisia.  Tunisian women have historically been presented with opportunity, particularly related to education and the economy.  But now more than ever, Tunisian women recognize the importance of their active participation in the development of their country during this time of transition.  They are worried about losing their rights and opportunities, and they are eager to develop leadership skills that will help them sustain those rights and build a strong civil society. 

On this significant anniversary, it’s fitting that we look forward to a hopeful future in the birthplace of the Arab Spring. Last week, the Bush Institute selected 20 outstanding Tunisian women for the 2014 Fellowship class.  These women represent education, health, business, politics, law and media.  Each woman defined her specific vision for the future of her country and described how she plans to have a significant effect.  Through the Women’s Initiative Fellowship, we are confident that Tunisia’s future will be improved by this dynamic group of women.

 


Author

Charity Wallace
Charity Wallace

Charity N. Wallace serves as the Senior Advisor to the Women's Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute and is in an executive graduate program in pursuit of a Global Master of Arts degree in international relations from The Fletcher School at Tufts University. Most recently, Ms. Wallace served as the Vice President of the Global Women’s Initiatives and Senior Advisor to Mrs. Laura Bush. In this role, Ms. Wallace was responsible for setting the vision and managing the policy engagement for the women’s initiatives, including Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon global health initiative, empowering women in the Middle East and working with First Ladies from around the world. The Women's Initiative aims to improve access to education, health care, and economic opportunity for women and children in Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.

From February 2009 through September 2010, Wallace served as the Chief of Staff to Mrs. Laura Bush.  Wallace oversaw Mrs. Bush’s initiatives - from her wide ranging policy agenda to her the publishing and promotion of Mrs. Bush’s bestselling book, Spoken from the Heart. Wallace served in the Bush Administration from January 2001 to January 2009.  During her tenure in the administration, she served as Deputy Chief of Protocol of the United States (2007-2009), Director of Advance for First Lady Laura Bush (2004-2007), and worked in public liaison positions in Presidential Advance, the U.S. Department of Education, the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, and USA Freedom Corps. During her tenure in the Bush Administration and in her current role, Wallace has traveled to 70 countries.

Ms. Wallace serves on the Board of Advisors for the School of Public Policy at Pepperdine University, the Advisory Board of ARZU Studio Hope, the Advisory Board of 4word Women and the Advisory Board of All In Together, an bi-partisan organization that promotes women’s engagement in political and civic life.  Ms. Wallace is an ex-officio member on the Human Freedom Advisory Council for the Bush Institute.  Ms. Wallace wrote the foreword for the book Work, Love, Pray, which was released in 2011. A native of California, Ms. Wallace graduated magna cum laude from Pepperdine University with a Bachelor of Arts in political science, with a focus in international relations. 

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