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For two weeks in October, the George W. Bush Institute’s WE Lead scholars were in Dallas for the first of three modules focused on leadership and economic opportunity. These 19 women leaders from the Middle East, North Africa (MENA), and Afghanistan are catalysts for change in their communities and countries. They are lifting others up in the pursuit of more prosperous futures in their regions.
As the women left Dallas and headed home, reports of a 30-year-old Tunis woman blowing herself up in the center of Tunisia’s capital rippled through the region.
The attack came at a time when Tunisia had been working diligently toward a brighter future. Monday’s event was a gut punch. A stark reminder of the challenges and obstacles faced by our program participants and many others across their regions.
Close to 30 percent of MENA youth are unemployed, posing serious challenges to stability and prosperity. Many countries do not have adequate infrastructure to accommodate the resulting education and job market needs. As a result, many youth find themselves disillusioned and disenfranchised, often economically and politically. In the latest Arab Youth Survey, creating new, well-paying jobs came in second on the list of top priorities to move the region in the right direction; defeating terrorist organizations came in first.
Some will say so what – not my community, not my country, not my problem.
But it matters. In fact, it matters a lot, especially when considering the broader implications on security and stability worldwide. Disenfranchisement yields instability; hopelessness can manifest violence. Take your pick of recent tragedies and political crises - the intersection of disaffection, lack of opportunity, and building despair are tough to ignore, whether near or far.
Yet our scholars, and so many women like them, push forward. Amid division, they seek out connections. In the face of inequality, they pursue inclusion. And despite the realities of violence, bias, and fear, their sights are fixed on progress.
It has been proven time and again that women drive education, prosperity, and self-reliance in their communities. An increase in female labor force participation results in faster economic growth, and increasing women and girls’ education contributes to higher economic growth. When women hold equal and active roles in society, children are more likely to be educated. Families are healthier. Communities thrive. This is as true in the Middle East and North Africa as it is all over the world.
Whether Afghanistan, Tunisia or Namibia - what happens around the world impacts us here at home. The United States has a role to play. And one of the most influential ways we can support the growth of peaceful, prosperous societies is through direct investment in women leaders.
A year ago, the bipartisan Women, Peace, and Security Act was signed into law. Demonstrated by growing evidence on the positive impact of women in peacebuilding and conflict resolution, the legislation aims to ensure “that the United States promotes the meaningful participation of women in mediation and negotiation processes seeking to prevent, mitigate, or resolve violent conflict.”
This legislation promoting women’s inclusion in peacebuilding around the globe is more important now than ever. And greater investments in women leaders is one of the most influential ways we can support continued progress. To achieve lasting prosperity, every citizen must have equal opportunities to maximize their potential.
And yes, while turning on the television or reading the news—particularly this week—can make us feel like these regions are in a constant state of turmoil, we must remember that these images fail to acknowledge the infectious hope that persists: the many changemakers, particularly women, who are doing the painstaking work of economic, political, and social advancement necessary for long-term prosperity.
Women’s leadership matters. Now more than ever it is vital that we reaffirm our support to trailblazers like our WE Lead scholars. They, and so many like them, are moving the needle forward. As one scholar wrote in her reflection on recent events, “remember, we are stronger together.”
Natalie Gonnella-Platts serves as the Director of the Women's Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute. In this role, Natalie is responsible for research and programmatic efforts that empower women worldwide to lead in their communities and countries. This includes the work of the First Ladies Initiative, which aims to enable and support First Ladies from around the world in effectively using their platforms to empower women and children in their countries. Additionally, she is the host of the Bush Institute’s award nominated podcast, Ladies, First; the co-author of a first-of-its kind analysis on global first ladies, A Role Without a Rulebook; and served as a project lead on the development of the Bush Institute’s 2018 special exhibit, First Ladies: Style of Influence.
Natalie studied Communications and International Studies (Peace and Conflict) at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Fredonia. She earned an MA in War, Violence and Security studies from the University of Sussex in Brighton, United Kingdom. Prior to joining the Bush Institute, she held roles in New York City at American International Group (AIG), and in London at ConservativeHome USA, the Legatum Institute, and BBC Worldwide. She is a member of Akola Project’s Advisory Council; a co-founder of Each Inc., a non-profit that seeks to provide innovative technology tools to organizations that care for and protect orphans and vulnerable children; and has previously served as a project strategy advisor to Stop the Traffik’s Finance Against Trafficking initiative.Full Bio
Farhat Popal serves as Senior Program Manager, Women's Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute. In this role, Farhat leads the WE Lead program and is responsible for research and programmatic efforts that empower women worldwide to lead in their communities and countries.
Farhat studied Political Science/International Relations and History of the Near East at the University of California, San Diego. She earned a Master’s degree in Public Policy from the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. Prior to joining the Bush Institute, she worked on human rights programs in Afghanistan and Central Asia at the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor in Washington, DC, and evaluated reconstruction projects in Afghanistan with the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. While with SIGAR, she spent considerable time conducting field work at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. In addition to her international work, Farhat evaluated the effectiveness and efficiency of local government programs at the City of San Diego and City of Oakland’s Offices of the City Auditor.Full Bio
Dreamer to Achiever
In Egypt, it was not common for women to run or play sports in public. 2013 WE Lead Scholar Mariz Doss worked to change that perception.
WE Lead Graduation
The inaugural class of WE Lead scholars graduated from the 5-month program on March 21. WE Lead seeks to empower and equip women to become more effective leaders and to advance economic opportunity in their communities and countries.
Q&A with WE Lead Scholar Nadia Behboodi
Nadia Behboodi, a 2019 WE Lead Scholar from Afghanistan, is CEO of the Afghan Women’s Organization for Research, Learning, and Development. She volunteers with Seeds of Change, a network of professional women and men standing for female leadership at all levels, and manages Afghanistan’s first circle of the Lean In network, which promotes female empowerment.