History? Culture? Food? Actually, it has to do with the transformation of these cities into places more responsive to the needs of all of their residents.
Each of these cities, in Israel, Europe and North America, have signed up to create a ‘blueprint,’ a plan to help bring about greater gender equity. They each are willing to create and then implement an action protocol that addresses the questions of how municipal planning, budgets and services are reflecting the interests of their citizens.
Why do we need this kind of blueprint for our cities? Well, it turns out that ‘gender neutral’ doesn’t work so well. Or at least when it comes to making sure there are fair and equal services at the local level. We know, for example, that women use public transportation differently, that they face challenges in terms of their personal safety, and that as primary caregivers, they are more in need of easy access to baby clinics and health services for elderly parents. And that is just the beginning of a long list of differences. Once you put on your ‘gender lens’ glasses and start examining the machinery of municipal services, those data points keep adding up.
But how do we ensure that the perspective of women along with that of men gets built into local decisions? So much is stacked against this happening – starting with minimal political representation for women and with so many traditional religious communities in Israel entirely marginalizing women’s voices. Thankfully though, women’s political participation and their civic engagement is on the rise, something that is sorely needed given their abysmally low number of representatives. Localities are now mandated to have a mayoral advisor on gender equality. And with an increasing awareness of the critical role of cities and towns, there is a growing recognition among activists and civil society organizations that improving our quality of life has to start at the local level.
One example of the many efforts to encourage this trend is the “City for All” program in Rishon LeZion, Taybie, Akko and Haifa, launched a few years ago by the nonprofit Itach Maaki -Women Lawyers for Social Justice, and now operating in collaboration with the Adva Center and local municipalities. Itach Maaki (translated as “with you” in Hebrew and Arabic) has for years sought to help women’s voices be heard through community activism, legal work and policy making. The Adva Center, an expert on gender mainstreaming of budgets and programs in the national and municipal level, has worked with dozens of localities, both Jewish and Arab, and leads training for the Regional Forum of Mayoral Advisors on Gender Equality.
Working with the municipal leadership, Itach Maaki and the Adva Center provide the means and methods, helping to support the mayoral advisor on Gender Equality, while offering budgeting expertise, data collection tools, and a clear framework for action and citizen engagement. A platform is created by which the municipality can more effectively engage with constituents and better understand the needs of all residents. By doing so, this helps to expand everyone’s toolbox with regard to gender equality, while at the same time allowing the nuts and bolts of municipal policymaking to become both more responsive and transparent. Each of the participating cities is creating its own blueprint. The toolkit they have is full of options, not hard and fast rules.
The Arab city of Taybie provides an example of what this looks like in practice – all the more noteworthy because, until recently, political representation of women there stood close to zero. As part of its own “City for All” process started in 2017, the Taybie municipal leadership, civil society organizations, and members of the local business sector and social services created an action plan.
And what has Taybie already accomplished over the past year? The city carried out a gender analysis of the municipal budget. It also opened a soccer club for girls, a center for women (which includes legal aid), a pool with women-only swimming days, and started tours of companies like Facebook for high school girls to encourage them to pursue high-tech careers.
As for by-products of this process? One is a shifting mindset that ‘women’s issues’ are actually ‘community issues.’ Here’s one example. Perhaps you recall last December’s nationwide general strike, during which tens of thousands of women protested the government’s mishandling of the growing crisis of domestic violence. It was the first strike of its kind, receiving declarations of support from hundreds of institutions around the country. And the first municipality to pledge its support, giving its workers a day off to strike? The city of Taybie.
Just a few weeks ago, I found myself sitting at lunch with the founding group of the newly established women’s council of Acco, one of the first key deliverables of their participation in the “City for All” program. Weeks away from a contentious national election, we all sat together – secular/orthodox, Jewish/Arab, Ashkenazi/ Sephardic. I watched all these women, who have such varied lifestyles and ideological views, bypassing divisive political issues in order to focus on the main priority – how they can improve daily life for themselves, their families and their communities.
And when cities like Acco, with such diverse populations and acute socio-economic challenges, focus on meeting the needs of all of their residents, it is even more compelling. Historically, cities with fewer economic opportunities have had less women’s representation. Yet we have also seen that when more women are involved in city level management, there is greater innovation and problem-solving, and this is even before we begin considering their documented talents in resolving conflicts.
We know that our communities benefit when diverse voices are brought to the table and public engagement becomes routine. If you need a template, you have somewhere to turn. The toolkit that is being assembled is helping to give cities a new lens from which to view their work. In time, we can hope that the process becomes institutionalized, a part of decision making that is natural and automatic – with eyes so well-adjusted that there is no need for glasses fitted with a gender lens.