Washington (CNN) – Former President George W. Bush said Wednesday it takes something special to get him out of Dallas nowadays, and with the Africa Leaders Summit in Washington this week it gave him a chance to talk about an effort many may not associate him with - fighting AIDS in Africa.
Bush discussed his institute's efforts to fight AIDS with programs like "Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon" – which provides screenings to women at high risk for cancer.
"The women were nervous at first to be screened, but then they become joyous. Joyous to know that people cared about them, and joyous to know that their government wanted them to be healthy," Bush told the audience at a symposium hosted by first lady Michelle Obama and his wife, former first lady Laura Bush.
"The screening was a matter of survival. I know the process can be intimidating its truly a source of life and hope."
The event, held at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., focused on the impact of investments in education, health, and public-private partnerships in Africa but clearly highlighted the role of African women and girls in the present and future potential of their home countries.
Bush followed speeches by Michelle Obama and Laura Bush to an audience primarily made up of the spouses of African heads of state, or "first spouses."
"By the way for the first ladies, if you're worried about your husband's political future, taking care of women is good politics," Bush told the audience, also admitting that he suspected that both he and his successor were less popular or famous than their spouses.
During his time in office the former president championed a program entitled the "President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief" or PEPFAR, a lesser known part of Bush's legacy in the White House. In 2003, the program began by providing $15 billion over five years to combat AIDS around the globe through testing, counseling and medical treatment. The amount initially spent was over three times what the nation had spent on this cause before.
Bush spoke about his hope that programs like PEPFAR and Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon would empower African countries to tackle cancer and AIDS with the help of global resources as well as local leadership.
"These programs survive and thrive when local leaders take ownership and commit their resources, as we've seen in Tanzania, Zambia and Botswana. Our goal is to create working models, proven partnerships, that additional countries over time can expand and incorporate into their own national plans. It’s always been my approach to development: partnership not paternalism," Bush told the audience.
However, Bush also acknowledged issues that stem from the local communities and prejudices.
"It is impossible to direct help where it is needed most when any group is targeted for legal discrimination and stigma. Compassion and tolerance are important medicines."
Leadership from those in positions of power, many of whom were in the room, can be essential in knocking down these barriers, Bush said.
"People die of stigma. There's too many people not being treated because of some false rumors, and the first ladies – while stigma may seem like an unbreachable wall – you got to realize it’s really made of glass and through your leadership it can be broken, by being outspoken and by being honest and by being compassionate for the sake of mothers and granddaughters."