By Shara Jazzar
About the ‘Decentralizing Government and Centralizing Gender in Jordanian Municipalities’ project
With support from Hivos and funding from the Dutch MFA, the Higher Population Council (HPC) conducted a study on ‘the role of municipal councils in responding to COVID-19 pandemic’, targeting three Jordanian municipal councils in Madaba, Mahes and Ajloun in order to evaluate the impact this crisis has had on the social, economic and social levels; the priorities to address when dealing with this pandemic; and the role played by municipalities – in particular women members – and highlight the need for supporting females in becoming more active decision-makers, despite the reigning local culture and social limitations.
One of the project’s main outcomes is formulating gender-sensitive development plans and budgets in the chosen municipalities in relation with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the CDP Commitments to provide services to all members of society and raise awareness on the importance of women as active policymakers on the political levels in local governments. Furthermore, the main goal of the project is to empower current and potential members of municipal councils by strengthening their leadership skills and building their communication capacities as well as planning and budgeting abilities that are gender sensitive, in addition to supporting internal policies and practices in state institutions and councils at the sub-national level that promote work-life balance. Finally, a number of individuals in state institutions and councils were informed, advised and/or trained on enabling policies and practices for women's leadership. It is worth highlighting that this project targets the general public and triggers it to think positively about women’s political participation and leadership.
Major findings of Study
In Madaba, during the response to COVID-19 phase, only 66.7% of female council members took part in activities such as distributing bread and delivering medicine, disinfecting public spaces, and monitoring stores - as opposed to 81.8% of male council members. The gap between both percentages reveals to which extent women are excluded from the social sphere, because of social norms which refuse that females go on the ground in order to take part in activities that might require working after dark or in contact with people or with a team that includes men. This is due to gender stereotypes that consider women as weaker creatures in need of protection; and has a negative impact on their public participation. This is further emphasized by the fact that only 16.7% of females were satisfied with the role played by their municipality in limiting the spread of coronavirus, as opposed to 81.8% of males. In addition 50% of female members think there was no equality between the role of women and men members of municipality in the role attributed to them during the crisis, as opposed to 27.3 % of men.
These numbers reflect how the general population see women’s public role, and has a negative impact on women candidates during elections.
Furthermore, 81.8 % of male members and 50% of female members believe that women have the capacity to respond to the crisis to a certain extent; this amounts to two thirds of the council and indicates that men – and even women – are not convinced that females have the full capacity to take decisions and find solutions to crisis. This is further corroborated by the fact that 16.7% of women members of municipal councils pointed out that they were not invited to any COVID-19 related meeting, as opposed to none of the men; perhaps their presence was not deemed necessary as they were assumed as not having any input to share because of their gender! There are many reasons to that, as mentioned in the ‘Women’s participation in the political life in Jordan’ report published by the OECD in 2018. For instance, “the perception in Jordan that women and girls need guardianship and protection often translates into restrictions on their freedom of movement, social engagement and civic participation, particularly in rural areas. Women, as such, often remain on the side-lines, disinclined to engage in politics. The low levels of female voter participation can be an indicator of such a sentiment: during the 2016 elections, only 32% of eligible female voters voted.” In other words, how can we expect women to become or elect female decision-makers if they do not exercise one of their most basic rights, which is choosing their representatives?
Another challenge to women’s active participation is the quota system, which is perceived as coming from a negative perception of women rather than a positive one. For instance, in Madaba, 6 out of 16 municipality members are women, 4 of which won their seats through the quota in 2017’s elections. This means that without the quota, their number would have been further reduced to the benefit of men. According to a study conducted by the Jordanian National Commission for Women (JNCW) in 2009, most women who won their seat through the quota feel marginalized and that their opinions are not taken as seriously as those who won by competition. This is most probably due to the fact that they did not actually win their seats and were faced with disdain on that account, according to the study.
The situation in other countries in the region in term of gender-based response to COVID-19
According to the Middle East Institute (MEI), the COVID-19 situation “will be especially dire for women and girls in conflict areas, who face the additional burdens of displacement, lack of access to education, early marriage, and domestic and sexual violence,” in particular because they constitute – with children – the vast majority of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). In addition, “an increasing number of female-led households have emerged from the wars”, particularly in Palestine, Iraq and Syria in the Middle East region. From this perspective, Jordan is less affected than most of its neighboring countries as its security situation is stable, and the country – unlike Lebanon – is not facing an economic bankruptcy. In Egypt, women currently represent 15% of the Parliament and 25% of the Cabinet. However, “the voices of Egyptian women, particularly the poor and the marginalized, are often absent from decision-making, especially in times of crisis,” such as under COVID-19. This is the reason why there is a need for women from the local communities as well as health workers to have their voices heard in order to take part in shaping the policies and measures that will directly impact them, because they are the most vulnerable population and the one that carries more weight.
Role of Jordanian women during the COVID-19 response
In her article for the Brookings Institution related to the COVID-19 response in Jordan from a gender perspective, Mayyada Abu-Jaber highlighted that “the accolades have been focused on the males, erasing the important role that Jordanian women have played.” She supported her argument with social media advertisement that features an image titled “Jordanian Heroes”, which comprise the prime minister surrounded by his ministerial cabinet members, all six of them men. To, Abu-Jaber, two key respondents to the COVID-19 are missing from the picture; the Minister of Natural Resources and that of Social Development, both women. This makes us wonder what reasons were behind their non-appearance in the image, and the lack of public recognition they received as opposed to their male counterparts. In addition, despite the fact that “women constitute 44% of Jordan’s health sector workforce, health workers are excluded from decision-making bodies responding to COVID-19.” This is definitely not due to the fact that their role is not important or that they have done less than men, but rather to the local culture that highlights achievements of men while considering that women’s role is secondary or supportive of that of males. In addition, “the images of women in the Jordanian national curriculum are a powerful conduit for teaching girls their place in society that transmits dominant values and beliefs, including gender norms.” The gender roles that girls should aspire too are mainly those of caregivers. Furthermore, if they have no examples of successful women in times of crisis, how can girls aspire to achieve the same and work on empowering themselves?
In the studied governorates, the results of the study clearly highlighted that local culture and customs have negatively impacted the role given to women, which led to a decrease in the responsibilities they undertook - despite their high education levels and strong social acceptance. Until when will women be excluded from performing their natural roles in society?
Unfortunately, women’s participation in decision-making under COVID-19 has been very limited in Jordan. In order to support females, programs aiming to increase women’s participation in the execution of programs and projects which respond to the impact of the crisis should be implemented.
Additionally, all members of municipal councils, but in particular women, should attend capacity building trainings on gender mainstreaming in the municipal work. Also, information and data related to the particularities of the local population should be provided in order to implement interventions that are more effective and that respond to the needs of the population, which might be different from a municipality to another. Furthermore, strategic plans of municipalities must be reviewed to involve all members - especially women - in planning, executing, following-up and evaluation. Most importantly, municipality members must understand the importance of the effective participation of women, and grant them decision-making powers, in particular in times of crisis and emergency, as this is at the core of equality and equity and will enable to impact policies.