Produced by Women Deliver May 7, 2016 Katja Iversen, Women Deliver CEO Originally Published at the New York Times

Why You Should Think Twice About Ignoring Women’s Sports

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If money talks, then the Women’s World Cup was a whisper at best. After Team USA’s win over Japan in the final last Sunday, the shocking disparitybetween women’s and men’s World Cup winnings has been thrown into sharp focus. To add insult to injury, FIFA’s financial statements relegate the Women’s World Cup to “other FIFA events.”

The slight against women in sport doesn’t stop there. From paltry player salaries to turf fields and hand-me-down facilities, it’s no secret that female athletes are shortchanged — often dramatically — compared to their male counterparts.

The question is: why should people care?

Because when girls and women play sport, everybody wins.

For many girls and women, sport can be more than game-changing — it can be life-changing. In poor and marginalized communities around the world, young girls too often find themselves facing poverty, gender-based violence and early marriage. Sport shatters the illusion that this path is the only option and opens girls’ eyes to their untapped potential.

We know that playing sport makes both women and men healthier and stronger physically. Sport also teaches people confidence, leadership and teamwork — essential skills for succeeding at just about anything.

Sport connects girls and adolescents with support networks, knowledge and tools—including those to prevent early and life-threatening pregnancies and diseases like HIV/AIDS — enabling girls to take ownership of their health and futures.

This ripple effect is positive and powerful. Time and again, evidence tells us that when countries champion healthy, empowered girls and women, families are healthier, communities are stronger and economies are more resilient. Women are fundamental to development and economic growth. They reinvest 90 percent of their earned income in their families and, when barriers in the labor force are eliminated, women are estimated to boost economic productivity by 25 percent in some countries. 

Yet the fact that so many people still question and neglect girls’ and women’s right to play reminds us that girls and women have yet to be considered equals—both on and off the field. Girls around the world, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, are habitually discouraged or prevented from getting in the game. These inequities have not been treated with the urgency they deserve.

The simple truth is that people don’t value sport for its global development benefits, as real and essential as those benefits are. For the vast majority of fans, it’s about the fun and thrill of the game: the adrenaline, the collective energy, the camaraderie.

These are important aspects of sport, but to focus only on them is short-sighted. Where female athletes inspire the same level of country pride and devotion as male athletes, girls’ and women’s health, rights and wellbeing — not to mention stronger populations and thriving economies — will naturally follow.

If we all do our part to step up investments in girls’ and women’s athletic programs, we can level the playing field and accelerate progress toward a healthier and brighter future for girls everywhere.

Governments can set an example for their citizens by increasing investments in sport programs and enforcing policies that protect girls’ and women’s right to play. What’s more, schools and community groups can play a vital role in encouraging girls to get in the game too. A supportive coach or teacher can mean the difference between a girl trying out for the team and opting to stay home.

The bottom line is that we all have a role to play in giving every girl, everywhere a chance to play, lead and win.

That’s why advocates and athletes from around the world came together last month at the Girl Power in Play Symposium in Ottawa to issue a Call to Action urge global leaders and athletic organizations to increase investments in girls’ sport worldwide. If we work together, we can help girls discover their power on the field, so that they can unlock their potential off the field.

Now that the Women’s World Cup is behind us, we must redouble our efforts to direct global attention toward this often overlooked, but critical issue. From the stands of the Women’s World Cup to the halls of government, it’s time to equate the strength of girls and women with the strength of our nations.

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