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On September 24 2010, Ugandan President Museveni boldly proclaimed to the UN Generally Assembly that Uganda “will definitely” achieve the Millennium Development Goal 3, on gender equality and empowering women, by promoting education at all levels no later than 2015.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are a series of eight non-binding commitments to cut world poverty in half, agreed to unanimously by UN member states in December 2000. To address the progress of these goals, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) prepared an assessment entitled “What Will it Take to Achieve the Millennium Development Goals?” in advance of this year’s UN summit in New York. The report revealed that countries that succeeded in achieving MDG 3 saw a multiplier effect in reaching the other seven MDGs. To that end, Uganda has taken steps towards codifying a national policy on gender equality and advancing human rights by drawing up a legal framework for their development. Yet advancement of gender equality in education and empowering women, the primary targets of MDG 3, remain unmet goals despite these legal mechanisms and President Museveni’s optimism.

Currently, only one-third of girls who enroll in primary education in Uganda are still in school at the age of 18, compared to one-half of boys. Early pregnancies, sexual harassment, lack of sanitation facilities, and female genital mutilation cause many girls to drop out or miss school. The country’s failure to adequately address women’s issues has hindered its economic development as well. According to Uganda’s development plan, ending gender inequality in education and formal sector employment would increase the GDP by 1.2% annually.

The actual conditions of female Ugandan students are in stark contrast to the words of the Ugandan Constitution, which accords men and women equal dignity under the law. Because this language alone proved insufficient to provide equal dignity to women, Uganda took action in 2005, amending the Constitution to call for the creation of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) to correct imbalances specific to women and historically underrepresented groups.The new Constitution presents the EOC with the daunting task of “[taking] affirmative action in favor of groups marginalized on the basis of gender, age, disability or any other reason created by history, tradition or custom, for the purpose of redressing imbalances which exist against them.” The Constitution left it to the Ugandan parliament to determine the specific powers and form of the commission. Thus, when the parliament passed the Equal Opportunities Commission Act of 2007, it granted the EOC the power not just to issue recommendations, but also “… to order any institution, body, authority or person to adopt or take particular steps or action which, in the opinion of the Commission will promote equal opportunities; . . ..”

In Uganda, the perpetuation of gender inequality has been facilitated by a lack of education for women and girls, and the government’s unwillingness to move beyond written words to achieve MDG 3. Uganda has failed to adequately address women’s education, but has an incredibly powerful tool to implement change through the EOC. The EOC is vested with the power to curtail the conditions that lead to a higher female dropout rate in schools. It can address sexual harassment in schools by imposing civil sanctions on the perpetrators, and by requiring schools to end harassment or face funding cuts. It could legally require changing the primary and secondary level curriculums to include lessons on avoiding pregnancy at a young age, and also require schools to provide education to pregnant women and girls. The EOC also has the power to move female genital mutilation trials to the top of court dockets and mandate harsh sentences for those found guilty. Unfortunately, in spite of its potential to enact positive change, the EOC was not staffed until August of 2009, and has not yet been able to make a significant impact in achieving its constitutional mandate or further Uganda’s MDG commitments.

If the EOC can fully employ its force of law to mandate gender equality in education, Uganda may have the potential to reach MDG 3, and thus further the other poverty reduction goals. The Ugandan leadership has acknowledged the significance of achieving MDG 3, and invested in legal mechanisms to help advance gender equality. However, the slow progress of the EOC and the significant gaps in gender education in Uganda make achieving MDG 3 a daunting task. With such strong moral and economic incentives, Uganda will need to move beyond words and employ all of its available tools to ensure gender equality in education.