Writing on International Women’s day last Monday, Ms. Bo Goransson, the Swedish Ambassador to Kenya, reflected on the achievements in a 100-years struggle for gender equality in her country. Women have achieved membership of half the government and half the parliament. ”Nevertheless”, she wrote, “Sweden is an Unequal Country. Women do not enjoy the same opportunities as men do.” Culture and tradition, she said, were to blame. Violence against women was still high and discriminated against in the private sector. Only a few of powerful chief executives were women.

It points to a great divide between “ostensible” gender equality and “real” gender equality. Ostensible gender equality exists where a few shining examples are used as a measure of the progress women have made. It is what we saw last Monday when the visible achievements towards gender equality were analyzed and celebrated.

Dominating the least rewarding positions

The reality is pathetic. The campaign to bring on more women lawyers, doctors, engineers, members of parliament, cabinet ministers or even president sit awkwardly with the reality of women dominating the least rewarding positions. Developing public administration to ensure women are one third of government does not erase the fact that the majority of the women will still be wives and mothers without power to make decisions on family finances and other fundamental issues affecting them or their children.

The empowerment of “Wanjiku”- the rural woman, married with four children, whose husband is the bread winner and financial leader of the family is where the challenge of real gender equality lies. When the law can grant the woman financial security for being no more than a house wife, when her domestic security and social dignity become the focus of the gender equality campaign, then “Real” equality will be achieved.

It is by concentration on the “ostensible” equality that we fail to look at how the law can be changed to acquire “real” equality. Sometimes the law is in fact amenable and only needs proper enforcement. The law of Succession Act, for instance, revolutionized women’s rights in inheritance but more time is spent in criticizing it than enforcing what is achieved.

Requiring the husband to seek her consent

At other times, campaigners fail to adequately assess the necessary legal changes and thus pursue the grandiose issues. The Married Women’s Property Act and several judgments of the Court of Appeal protect a woman’s right to property that is registered in the husband’s name if she has contributed to the acquisition of the property. A house-wife’s duties are now considered as proprietary contributions.

However, few women are ever able to take advantage of these laws. No one tells them. Crucially, the law does not require her consent to transfer such property. Any law that would protect the rights of the wife by requiring the husband to seek her consent before transferring property that may be regarded as matrimonial would achieve more “real” equality than the entire chapter on devolution of powers.

What we need are laws that deal with the problems of women; laws that create new cultures and traditions in which the common woman is protected. There will always be millions of women who want to be more than mothers and wives and they may be served little by laws that enable women to be presidents and prime ministers.

That was the word of caution from Ms. Goransson. Ostensible equality does not help majority of the woman. It is changes in cultures and also takes, possibly more important, making men take up their responsibility.

The gender equality campaigners must address the laws that will create a social revolution, not sterile political symbolism.