Bashaer Othman has taken over the municipal offices of Allar in the West Bank hills as part of a youth empowerment programme
She could have spent the long, hot summer holiday hanging out with friends or helping at home. But instead, 15-year-old Bashaer Othman is making speeches, signing documents, chairing meetings, attending civic functions and meeting citizens as Mayor of Allar, a small Palestinian town high in the West Bank hills.
Every morning Bashaer heads off to the municipal offices, where she has full control — except for financial matters — as part of an unusual summer experiment aimed at empowering young people.
For two months the regular mayor, Sufian Shadid, and his team of councillors have handed the reins of power to a group of teenagers. The adults are on hand to advise and guide, but the decisions are made by the youngsters.
“At the beginning, people were critical because of our age,” says Bashaer. “But then they saw us working, and that we were tough and dedicated, and now they respect us.” Bashaer is the first female Mayor for the town of 9,000 residents. The regular 11-strong council includes two women, who are appointed under a quota system. But this summer, the gender balance is close to equal, with five girls and six boys serving the town. Halfway through her term, Bashaer has presided over a vote to set up a local fire department and establish Allar’s first public park with a children’s playground. She has also represented the town on a trip to Qatar. But she identifies the most important local issue as unemployment, especially among youth.
“If I could achieve one thing, it would be to create a project to provide as many youth jobs as possible,” she says. “Many people from Allar are crossing the Green Line [entering Israel illegally] to work. Instead of them going to work as cheap labour in Israel, we need to create jobs here.” According to Mayor Shadid, the aim of the summer takeover is “to give the young people a chance to participate in civil society and more confidence to become part of the political system in the future”. Bashaer is “doing a great job”, he says. She has “charisma, a strong leadership personality — and people like her”. The teenager, who hopes her role as Mayor will encourage more women to become actively involved in public life, plans to pursue a political career. The youngest of seven children, Bashaer says her family are supporting her summer role. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2012
Keywords: Palestine mayor