WASHINGTON — Former President George W. Bush says it takes a lot to convince him to return to the nation’s capital these days.
But he declared it fitting Wednesday as he made a rare Washington appearance, urging the spouses of African leaders at a daylong symposium to do more to reduce the “stigma and ignorance” that he said still surrounds diseases that strike women.
“The first ladies ought to be ambassadors,” he told the audience at the Kennedy Center. “You can help build political will, you can save women from cancer.”
Bush noted that many women aren’t getting treated because of the stigma, and “some false rumors.”
While those barriers “may seem like an unbreakable wall,” he said, “it’s really made of glass and through your leadership it can be broken.”
And, he joked, if the African spouses are worried about their husbands’ political futures, they should know that “taking care of women is good politics.”
Bush took the stage following a discussion led by his wife, former first lady Laura Bush, and first lady Michelle Obama to highlight the ways political spouses can make a difference, with an emphasis on improving the lives of women and girls across Africa. He sat in the audience while they spoke.
The symposium was part of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit this week in the nation’s capital designed to bolster economic ties between America and Africa.
“You all have the potential to inspire millions across the globe,” Obama said. “It is my hope that today, we will rededicate ourselves to these efforts and commit to new efforts to lift up our young people.”
The former president said that his 2003 President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, known as PEPFAR, was launched to stem a pandemic. Thanks to two U.S. administrations and increasing commitment from African countries, it now serves to stave off AIDS in more than 9 million people in sub-Saharan Africa.
“Disease can be defeated, and people living with AIDS refuse to be defeated,” he said. “A generation on the verge of being lost has been found.”
But Bush noted there’s still a stigma attached to AIDS and HIV infection and that women and girls are particularly vulnerable. Women with HIV, he noted, are more likely to develop cervical cancer, a preventable but leading cause of death.
“Compassion and tolerance are important medicines,” he said, warning against “legal discrimination and intolerance.”
He announced that a Bush initiative, Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon, which aims to include cervical cancer prevention in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, including increased access to human papillomavirus vaccinations in routine health care, will be expanded to Namibia and Ethiopia.
He noted African first ladies have been fighting against the “false rumors of the HPV vaccine,” adding that it’s “something that needs to be done here in America, as well.” HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In 2011, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota suggested in a Republican presidential debate that the vaccine could cause mental retardation, a statement that the American Academy of Pediatrics said had “absolutely no scientific validity.”
The two first ladies shared the stage, talking warmly about serving as modern first ladies and championing efforts to empower women. They held a similar event last year in Tanzania at a program sponsored by the Bush Institute, a think tank that is a part of the former president’s library center.
Laura Bush, who championed education for girls in Afghanistan as first lady, noted that first ladies have a “very unique platform” to help focus attention on educating boys and girls.
“Only countries where all people are involved can be successful,” she said. “When we look around the world and we see countries where half of the population is marginalized or left out, then we usually see countries that are failing.”
She got a round of laughter when she noted that someone once said to her, “Why are you working with women, it’s men who have the problem.”
Moderator Cokie Roberts noted that Africa was rebounding, but that “as good as the news is coming out of much of Africa, it won’t be as good as it can be until we do more about the girls” across the continent, including nearly 300 schoolgirls abducted by the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram.
“We have to fight for our girls,” Obama said. “There should never be a girl in this world who has to fear getting educated. That should be something that is intolerable to all of us.”
Both women talked about deflecting the barbs of the office, saying it’s a part of public service. First spouses don’t choose the position, Obama noted.
To which Bush added, drawing laughter: “We’re elected by one man.”
Obama encouraged the leaders in the audience to reach out.
“We can’t waste the spotlight. Time is short. Change is needed,” she said, adding with a laugh, “And women are smarter than men. And the men can’t complain because they are outnumbered today.”