I recently had a conversation with a friend who is knowledgeable about Title IX, the landmark legislation that nearly a half century ago, in 1972, banned discrimination on the basis of sex within federally funded schools. Its impact has been felt the most in terms of providing a level playing field for girls to engage in sports. During our passionate conversation, I started wondering what the world would be like if all girls worldwide had access to sports, that is, had their Title IX.
The eye-opening conversation brought back a flood of memories from my childhood and made me appreciate all the more what it's like to live in America. Then I realized that Title IX is under threat in the U.S., and I don't think the people who want to remove Title IX realize what a difference it makes.
I know because I did not have it as a young girl growing up in Baghdad, Iraq, at a time and in a place where girls and women were neither expected nor allowed to be enthusiastic about playing sports. There were no explicit laws prohibiting girls from playing sports, but it was discouraged at every turn. I was told, again and again, "Girls don't play sports," or, "sports are for boys only," or that it wasn't "proper" or "feminine" for girls to play sports. I witnessed firsthand girls being heckled for playing sports, for example, and the onslaught of accusations of unfeminine behavior toward these girls.
In America today, it's a vastly different situation. Because of Title IX, the NCAA says the number of female college athletes is at an all-time high, and the number of girls playing high school sports has dramatically risen from fewer than 300,000 in 1974 to more than three million.
Yet, the pay gap between professional female and male athletes looms large, which is why the U.S. Women's Soccer players sued the United States Soccer Federation for gender discrimination, including claiming pay discrimination. The World Cup championship Women's Soccer team was paid just $1,725,000 for winning the whole tournament while the men's team was paid $5,375,000 for losing. Appropriately, the women's team filed on International Women's Day, March 8.
But at least this is a better battle than having to fight to play in the first place.
Playing sports is so important - and not just because of the health benefits of exercise. Studies in Canada, Europe and the USA have shown that physical activities can go a long way in boosting a child's self-esteem. Research in Canada, for instance, has found that sixth-grade boys and girls who were physically active had considerably higher levels of self-esteem than their non-active classmates. A second study in Canada reached a similar finding while emphasizing the dangers of obesity.
In Switzerland, a study of 10,000 adolescents found that in addition to self-confidence, those who exercised had better body image, a more optimistic outlook about their health, lesser tendency to attempt suicide, were more likely to use car seats and had a lower use of tobacco, wine and marijuana.
Author Mina Samuels in her book "Run Like a Girl: How Strong Women Make Happy Lives," says "I discovered a capacity within myself that I never knew I had. I wasn't just physically stronger than I expected, I thought of myself as a different person, as someone with more potential, broader horizons, bigger possibilities."
That's what sports can do for a young person's self-esteem.
On a global level, the organization Women Win is leading the way in promoting girls' and women's empowerment through sport and says that great progress is being made. Executive Director Maria E. Bobenrieth and Astrid Aafjes in an article called "Celebrating Title IX Beyond the U.S." write that international development agencies, funders, governments, universities and nonprofits are increasingly turning to sports as an innovative and effective way to engage a young woman in achieving her rights.
"Well-designed sports programs are an effective platform for learning and building skills, increasing knowledge, improving health and fitness and ultimately yielding positive behaviors and health outcomes."
Title IX, they say, has established a "most valuable and relevant precedent in the United States on how sports programs are effective in helping a young woman achieve her rights and how additional resources within the women's rights and development sectors can be mobilized and targeted to improve outcomes for a woman and her community."
In a world where every country has a Title IX, maybe one day we will have a Serena Williams from Afghanistan, a Rhonda Rousey from Yemen, a Martina Navratilova from Saudi Arabia, an Abby Wambach from Sudan, a Lisa Leslie from Iraq and many more.
Reyzan Shali, M.D., is a practicing internist in Vista, California.
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