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Kenya, usually considered a stable presence in East Africa and a country with a great deal of economic promise, is now struggling to repair damage caused by the disputed 2007 elections and the resulting trials at The Hague. With elections coming again in a year’s time, the pressure is on. But amidst this anxiety about Kenya’s future, one thing has emerged as a cause for optimism: Kenya’s new constitution. The document was voted through by 67% of Kenyans in a popular referendum on August 4, 2010 – an event hailed for its peacefulness and fairness. As a result, the World Bank has cited Kenya as the top global leader in gender equality reform in its latest report Women, Business and the Law 2012: Removing Barriers to Economic Exclusion.

This announcement came as a surprise to many, as Kenya has not traditionally held a “good” record concerning gender equality. Eight years ago, a Human Rights Watch report illuminated serious problems in regards to Kenyan women’s access to property. The report documented countless cases of widows being stripped of their property after the death of their husbands, women evicted from their property, legal discrimination and male politicians slighting women’s issues.

According to the World Bank, Kenya’s new constitution has made a number of positive changes for women, particularly in the economic realm. Of the six indicators measured by the World Bank, Kenya is making strides in three very important areas: women’s access to institutions, access to justice and ability to control and use property.

Consequently, Kenya no longer differentiates men and women’s access to institutions or the use, ownership and inheritance of property. Female business owners can now quickly resolve minor disputes in small claims courts. Political parties are required to respect and promote gender equality. And perhaps most critically, customary and traditional laws which contradict new legislation, many of which cemented gender inequality, are now considered invalid.

The future of gender equality in Kenya now depends on the successful implementation of the new constitution. There is still a long way to go. One persistent obstacle is a lack of awareness: in an article in Business Daily, Joanne Mwangi, chair of the Federation of Women Entrepreneur Associations, noted that many women “still do not have the information to enable them to advance.” For women to fulfill their potential, it is critical for them to understand their new status under the constitution.

For this reason, women’s organizations like the Kenya Association of Women Business Owners (KAWBO) and the Africa Businesswomen’s Network’s (ABWN) hub in Kenya, are doing their part to further the goals enshrined in the new constitution. KAWBO has already held two forums to familiarize its members with the new constitution, including its gender reforms, to maximize the impact of the new laws. Sharon Kwanga, the hub manager at KAWBO, said the women of KAWBO “continue to celebrate Kenya’s progress in reform, especially the advancement of women’s rights in society,” and considers the World Bank ranking to be “good news.”

With such initiative being shown, there is much cause to hope that Kenyan women will increase their participation in the economy, and that they will move their country forward in a positive direction during this transitional moment in Kenya’s history.

Rebekah Curtis-Heald and Miriam Kirubel are interns with Vital Voices’ Africa program.