Making Local Government Work for Women

Sarah Hayward is the Former Leader of Camden Council and a GPG Associate. She writes for us about decentralization and gender. This is still a grey zone nonetheless an essential one for the experience it confers to women, along the lights it put on gender issues.

With decentralisation firmly on the development agenda it’s important women aren’t left behind as powers are devolved from central, to regional and local government in many developing countries.

Two forces act against women in a decentralising agenda. Firstly, despite the focus on decentralisation as a key driver of development, local government is often viewed as a poor cousin of national government, even though it frequently holds very significant budgets, powers and mandates. Secondly, and as a consequence of the first, gender equality in local government is often de-prioritised by political actors and institutions in favour of getting more women representatives in central government. This happens all over the world regardless of the level of development. And it’s a mistake.

Local government almost always has more power – hard and soft – to influence and change an individual locale than national government does; and its proximity to citizens means changes can be quicker and more profound for the people they’re intended to help. In addition, public services often have far greater use by, and impact on, women than they do on men. This all means it’s vital that women in communities are at the table where decisions are made, but too often they’re not.

If you look around the world, you won’t find reliable data on women in local government, either as politicians or officials. Even here in the UK our national statistical bodies don’t routinely publish data about gender representation in local government. Frequently data is collected by civil society organisations and so routine collection is subject to their resources and priorities. The most recent data available (2016) tells us that while one in three elected councillors are women, only about one in six leaders are women. But if we can’t reliably understand who is and isn’t being elected and where problems exists, it is all the harder to do something about it. In countries where decentralisation is an emerging or young priority, women should demand good data collection by electoral offices that is collected and reported nationally. It is a relatively simple and cheap ask if done at the declaration of results and/or appointments.

Women need to be represented at a local level for three main reasons that aren’t mutually exclusive. Firstly, in most parts of the world women are around 50 per cent of the population (plus or minus a few percent) and at its most basic representative government should seek to be representative. This really should be the end of the argument, but frequently is not.

The second reason is the impact government has on women. Women are economically excluded or disadvantaged compared to men, whether via labour or capital ownership, and so are more reliant on government. This includes both what is prioritised and what is ignored by government. Local government around the world usually has a recognisable combination of powers around economic development, education, health, some transport issues and waste. All of these issues have a greater impact on women – directly and indirectly.

The final reason is that political experience is invaluable. Local government is a good in itself, but it can also be an accessible training ground for women wishing to enter national or international politics. This is particularly the case where structural issues, like poor/unsafe public transport or expensive/non-existent childcare make it difficult for women to travel to the capital city. Finding your feet in local government can make you better able to compete at a national level.

There is no silver bullet that will solve gender equality in local government, but understanding the problem would be a start. Newer technology like WhatsApp makes it much easier to build and use networks of support and mentoring – although networks are still much more effective when based on personal face to face relations. In countries where decentralisation is in its infancy, or local government is re-emerging, women (and their supporters) should be demanding quotas that are monitored and enforced. They should also be demanding support to run as candidates and then to be effective politicians.

The decentralisation agenda in development is a massive opportunity to make real strides toward gender equality in politics. But governments that are decentralising need to put women at the heart of redistributing power.

Written for GPG by Sarah Hayward