We need global data on women’s participation in local government

The way to do so is by developing a robust indicator under the Sustainable Development Goals.
Celestine Ketcha Courtès (left), mayor of Bangangté, Cameroon, sits next to Fatimetou Abdel Malick, mayor of Tevragh Zeina, Mauritania, at an event in November 2015. (UCLG/Flickr/cc)

What proportion of the world’s mayors and councillors are women? Which cities and regions are world leaders in gender balance in local institutions and why? Answering these questions is more difficult than it may appear at first glance. Despite the growing consensus on the role that women’s participation plays in sustainable development, there is no globally comparable data on the proportion of women in local elected office.

That gap could have major impact. It has been demonstrated that when women have greater voice and participation in public administrations, public resources are more likely to be allocated toward investments in human development priorities, including child health, nutrition and access to employment.

That’s why it’s so important that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the global anti-poverty agenda that entered into force last year, directly address the issue of women’s political participation. Under the framework, Goal 5 on gender equality and women’s empowerment includes a specific target to “ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life.”

The representation of women in elected office in local institutions is a vital part of this target. It is essential that women are included in decision-making at the local level and are not excluded from the governance of our cities and territories. Further, local institutions provide a pipeline of candidates to national parliaments and executive positions, meaning that closing the gender gap in national leadership depends on addressing the issue at local level.

Achieving gender balance in local government is also important for achieving Goal 16, which addresses issues of transparency, strong institutions and access to justice. Two targets beneath this goal pledge governments to bolster accountability and representativeness in institutions at all levels.

[See: How Seberang Perai’s first female mayor is reducing waste and boosting citizen engagement]

So if there are no official statistics on women in local government, what is the anecdotal evidence? At UCLG, the world association of local and regional governments, we estimate that around 20 percent of local councillors and just 5 percent of mayors worldwide are women, with significant variations between world regions and countries.

While such numbers are striking, they are just estimates. Reliable data is needed to obtain an accurate picture of the current state of affairs and to effectively monitor progress on SDG 5.

Be Counted

That’s why on 13 March, a delegation of female mayors will gather in New York in parallel to the annual session of the U. N. Commission on the Status of Women to launch the “Be Counted” campaign, calling for better global data on women in locally elected office.

“Around 20 percent of local councillors and just 5 percent of mayors worldwide are women.”

The Be Counted campaign aims to support efforts led by UN Women and backed by global networks of local and regional governments to develop an indicator for Goal 5. Such indicators, which remain under discussion, offer specific metrics that governments and civil society can track to gauge progress on the goals and related targets.

[See: If cities are to ‘leave no one behind’, disaggregated data is invaluable]

The new campaign is urging the development of the proposed Indicator 5.5.1, which would pledge governments to measure the “Proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments and local governments”.

Under the current proposal, Indicator 5.5.1 is not exhaustive. For instance, it doesn’t measure the proportion of female mayors or of women in other executive roles. Nevertheless, identifying and developing globally comparable data sources on the proportion of elected women in local councils would represent a huge step forward with regard to the current information black hole.

Such action would help to address the dearth of information on gender equality in local governments across the world. It also would enable the international community and development professionals worldwide to identify and share good practices in promoting women’s participation in public life.

Where are some such good practices taking place today? Look, for example, at the introduction of quotas for women in local government in many countries in South Asia, which have resulted in significant increases in the number of women being elected.

[See: Bangladesh’s only female big-city mayor may also be its most effective]

Likewise, we have found that local government associations can play an important role in providing resources. This is the case of the Canadian Federation of Municipalities’ scholarship for women in municipal government, as well as the  the association of Basque municipalities’ “welcome guide” for locally elected women.

While these are strong models, better data would help to target support toward municipalities that are lagging behind on female representation.

At the outset of the SDGs process, a high-level panel appointed by former U. N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon to advise on the global development agenda called for a “data revolution”, using existing and new sources of data to fully integrate statistics into decision-making. It’s now time for this revolution to include indicators on gender equality in local government, the institution charged with achieving all 17 SDGs on the ground.

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Emilia Sáiz

Emilia Sáiz is deputy secretary general of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG).

Begoña Lasagabaster

Begoña Lasagabaster is chief of leadership and governance at UN Women.