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September 24, 2017

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Back to school for 'world's youngest mayor' in Palestine

ALLAR, Palestinian Territories--Like most Palestinian teens, Bashaer Othman goes back to school this week after a long summer break. But rather than hanging out with friends, this 16-year-old has spent the past two months serving as mayor of a small town in the northern West Bank.

Sitting at a large desk in front of three framed photographs of President Mahmud Abbas, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and veteran nationalist leader Yasser Arafat, Othman smiles as she signs a document allowing a resident to pay his large water bill in installments.

"It's not about the title, it's about serving the town," says the teenager, who was just 15 when she took over from mayor Sufiyan Shadid on July 2 for a two-month stint as the top official in Allar, a town of 8,000 residents.

The idea, she says, came out of a national youth parliament project run by the Sharek Youth Forum, which aims to involve youngsters in the day-to-day workings of Palestinian local government.

The project has been running across the Palestinian territories but Othman was the first to take on such a high-profile role, in a move which was "fully supported" by Shadid, she says.

The teenager says she knew "nothing" about the job at first but "with the help and cooperation of council members and the mayor," she quickly learned.

"I come to my office every morning at 8 a.m. and look over many files, sign papers and meet with council members. I also have to do a lot of field visits to solve urgent matters," she told AFP.

"I was scared about taking on so much responsibility, it was a big challenge," she said, explaining that her position was "not just a formality" and that she was given "full powers" as mayor.

But she is proud of her role. "I'm the world's youngest mayor, it's incredibly exciting," she says.

After six hours at work, Othman is free to go home, where she quickly switches to a more routine teenage existence — "playing computer games," she grins.

There are 11 councilors at the town hall, six from the ruling Fatah party, and five from the Islamist Hamas movement, which rules the Gaza Strip. All of them pitched in to support her, she says.

"I was afraid that some of the council members and employees would be against me and not help, but it turned out that everyone was supportive, which helped me do my job."

Shadid said the project has benefited everyone — both the youngsters and the council.

"The aim is to encourage young people and prove that they can take responsibility when given a chance," says Shadid, who has been the town's mayor for 12 years.

"We must always inject new blood into all Palestinian institutions with no exception so that they don't get flabby," he told AFP.

As part of the agreement, Othman was granted full powers as mayor, although a technical restriction with the bank meant she was only permitted to sign off on financial matters of up to 300 shekels (US$75).

"Anything above that amount is governed by the bank and they need an authorized signatory, which is me," explains Shadid.

There were a few minor gripes about why a boy wasn't chosen over a girl, but for the most part residents have been supportive.

"The fact that a girl of her age became mayor is a good thing," says Faiza Abu Saada, a housewife. "As long as she is up for it, she should be given the chance."

Well-digger Fahmi Ammer agreed. "It is a great idea. Young people should be given more chances."

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