October 11 marks the second annual International Day of the Girl, and the United Nations' theme this year is "Innovating for Girls' Education." Making girls' sports a priority is exactly the innovation needed to strengthen educational and employment outcomes across the globe.
Female youth who play sports are more likely to stay in school and graduate while avoiding teen pregnancy, and exercise has been linked to a decrease in breast cancer risk and certain types of depression. But getting girls into the game can also increase a country's gross domestic product. Title IX -- the U.S. law requiring gender equity in public education, including athletics -- has led to a significant nationwide increase in labor force participation since its passage in 1972. More women in the workforce correlates with higher GDP growth, according to the International Monetary Fund. Some assume that only economically developed countries have sufficient resources to promote sports participation by girls and women. The opposite is true: all countries can unlock the massive economic potential of women by ensuring their place on a level playing field.
Still, today, girls worldwide lack opportunities to play sports and face daunting pressures to follow cultural, governmental and familial norms prohibiting girls and women from participating in athletic activities. Saudi Arabia is still debating whether to permit women to attend publicly-held soccer games and only last year allowed women to take part in the 2012 Olympics. In the U.S., particularly in urban areas, girls are denied the same access to sports that boys have, despite national legal protections.
Against the odds, girls from Oakland International High School are playing soccer for the first time in their lives with the help of the non-profit organization Soccer Without Borders. This diverse group of girls is learning to thrive in school, in work and in the community through sports lessons. Many of the young women recently moved to the U.S. from various countries such as Somalia, where no formal women's soccer teams exist and where women are discouraged from participating in sports. A third of the students are refugees escaping some of the world's most violent conflicts, and a quarter of the students have no formal education upon arrival.
Through soccer, these girls are not only acquiring critical skills in teamwork and discipline, they are becoming economically stronger for having played. Female high school athletes make roughly 7% higher wages as adults than non-athletes, and a 2013 survey of women managers and executives in large businesses revealed that 90% had played sports in primary, secondary or graduate school.
On behalf of Fair Play for Girls in Sports -- a project of the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center dedicated to increasing athletic gender equity -- I recently provided a Title IX training for the girls and coaches of Soccer Without Borders. The female participants learned about gender equality under the law, many for the first time. Understanding that they are entitled to the same quality sports opportunities, facilities and lifelong benefits as their brothers and cousins is news to the girls, who overcome obstacles daily to stay after school to play.
This International Day of the Girl, we must urge communities, governments and families here and around the globe to recognize that gender equality in sports is not only a gateway for girls to excel in youth, it is a key to personal, national and international prosperity.