Gender equality starts at the top: Women in municipal leadership

When Mayor Célestine Ketcha épouse Courtès spoke at the ICLEI World Congress 2018, she painted a picture of what climate change means women in her native country, Cameroon. When droughts come, she said, and villagers need to travel to collect water, it is not the men who do the walking. It is the women who bring it back, and the women who lose their precious time.

This image highlights the importance of equitable, people-centered development, one of the five ICLEI pathways for sustainable development, and puts it into real terms. When women spend time collecting water, they have less to invest in things like education or income-generating activities, which puts them in a weaker economic situation and impacts their participation in the local economy. This sort of time poverty affects local sustainable development. It is a reality – but also avoidable by asking the right questions and by responding with gender-sensitive planning.

How can you develop a community that benefits people equitably? How can you avoid the future stress of these disparities? For leaders like Célestine Ketcha épouse Courtès and Valérie Plante, it starts with political representation.

Mayor Plante, the first female Mayor of Montréal in the city’s 375-year history, believes that gender equality is at the very heart of sustainable development. Montréal’s gender-balanced municipal council of 52 women and 51 men is a significant achievement. “I have built a cabinet around me be that is gender balanced,” she explained. “Those are people who guide me daily. They are from different backgrounds and they give me different perspectives – and that is important.”

Gender-balanced representation in leadership across sectors is critical. If city leadership reflect the diversity of communities, they are more equipped to address the structural inequalities. “We need more women in municipal councils,” says Mayor Courtès, who serves as president of the Network for Locally Elected Women of Africa, known as “REFELA”. “Solutions for climate change will be developed locally. We are talking about water, waste, food and energy. We need women leading locally.”

Women make up 52 percent of the population in Africa, but only 20 percent of political representation at the parliamentarian level and only 6 percent of political representation in municipalities. Despite the significant – and in many ways disproportionate – challenges they face, women’s voices are not well represented.

Both Mayor Plante and Mayor Courtès argue in favor of political quotas to ensure gender-balanced representation. In Cameroon, Ketcha épouse Courtès referenced what they call the zebra rule – “one woman, one man, one woman” – as the reason she first ran for office and an effective tool to bring women into the political sphere.

“As a party leader I agree with my colleague,” said Mayor Plante. “I am in favor of quotas. I think political parties need to commit to having 50 percent of candidates as women. That is non-negotiable in our party.”

In cities and municipalities that have diverse representation, it is more effectively reflected in policy and practice. For instance, Montréal set up gender equality committee that produces a gender analysis for programs and policies the city plans to implement. For example, they carry out a full, multi-perspective analysis when the city plans new bike lanes or renovation of public space.

The work of local leaders like Mayors Plant and Courtès shows the effect that diverse representation can have on local communities and global conversations around equity. Through their leadership, the ICLEI network is building more just, livable and inclusive communities.

This blog post is based on the session “Fostering women’s leadership in the implementation of sustainable development solutions” at the ICLEI World Congress 2018 in Montréal.