Women’s Representation in Local Government:

New Evidence from the West Bank

Within Palestinian institutions, Local Government in the West Bank is the sole remaining layer of government that has been subjected to the discipline of regular democratic elections administered by the Central Election Commission. These polls and the councils that they engender are therefore a rich source for understanding Palestinian political life. Palestinian women are among the most underrepresented groups in Palestinian politics. Largely absent from the senior echelons, women nonetheless make up about one-fifth (21%) of local councilors. Most are elected with the support of quotas that ensure that a minimum number of women are both nominated and elected.

Qualitative studies and widespread belief have suggested that most of these councilors are mere ‘quota women’ acting as stand-ins or proxies for their families or political factions and exercising limited substantive influence over council affairs. Since conventional wisdom on gender issues can sometimes be invalid, we set out to test these assumptions employing a robust quantitative and qualitative methodology. We spoke with a representative sample of councilors, stratified to ensure that we had geographical and rural/urban representation. We also selected a (smaller) representative sample of male council members to act as a baseline for our analysis.

We hope the findings contained in this report will contribute to a recalibration of perceptions related to the performance of women in local councils, and the potential for women’s political participation in Palestine. There are gaps between men and women on the councils, but in general, these gaps appear small. A significant majority of women councilors appear to be actively engaged in representing their constituents and building political careers. Women councilors attend council meetings, propose agenda topics, and are engaged in discussions. They are also highly likely to feel that their participation matters, to be proud of their councils, to feel supported by their colleagues, and positively evaluate council performance. Equally importantly, most women councilors see themselves as credible politicians and plan to stand again in future elections. That said, significant gaps remain. Women are 21% less likely than their male counterparts to attend council meetings, 10% less likely to propose agenda topics, and 7% less likely to recall what was discussed in council meetings (a measure of engagement).

Some of the gaps also favored women: women are 7% more likely to find their colleagues supportive of their contribution during council meetings, 20% more likely to positively evaluate their council performance, and 18% more likely to intend to stand again in future elections.

This new evidence problematizes much conventional wisdom about women in local West-Bank politics. It suggests that far from being relegated to the sidelines most local women politicians have emerged as successful political operators with levels of engagement comparable to their male counterparts. This reinforces experience from other contexts suggesting that women’s presence in democratic institutions has a positive impact on women’s ability to influence policies, even under the limited sovereignty of the Palestinian Authority.

Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research & United Nations Development Programme