By Gina Cherelus and Bernie Woodall
(Reuters) - In a historic shift, the Boy Scouts of America will let girls enroll in Cub Scouts starting next year and allow them to eventually earn the highest rank of Eagle Scout through a separate program, the organization said on Wednesday.
The unanimous decision by the 100-year-old group's board of directors came after years of requests from families and girls, it said, though the announcement prompted a mostly negative reaction on social media.
"We believe it is critical to evolve how our programs meet the needs of families interested in positive and lifelong experiences for their children," Boy Scouts Chief Executive Michael Surbaugh said in a statement.
Beginning next year, families will be able to enroll their sons and daughters in Cub Scout programs. Existing packs, or community-level units, can decide to establish new girl packs or co-ed packs. They can also remain exclusive to boys.
The organization will announce a separate program for older girls using the same curriculum as the Boy Scouts program that will allow them to earn the Eagle Scout rank, the highest achievement in the Boy Scouts of America (BSA).
By 2019, some girls will be able to reach the organization's highest rank of Eagle Scout, the organization said.
Cub Scouts range in age from 7 to 10, and Boy Scout members can be as young as 10 if they have finished the fifth grade. There are programs to allow Boy Scouts to remain until they are 20 years old.
"This unique approach allows the organization to maintain the integrity of the single gender model while also meeting the needs of today’s families," the BSA said in a statement.
Kathy Hopinkah Hannan, president of the Girl Scouts of the USA, in an August letter to Boy Scouts President Randall Stephenson accused the BSA of a "covert campaign" to recruit girls amid "well documented" declining membership, the Washington Post reported.
A representative for the Girl Scouts did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.
The BSA made the announcement on the "International Day of the Girl" which, according to the United Nations website, has been observed since 2012 "to highlight and address the needs and challenges girls face."
On social media, hundreds of people were critical of the news, with many people echoing the sentiments of Donald Trump Jr., the president's son.
"Strange, I thought that's what the Girl Scouts was for???" he said on Twitter.
In January, the Boy Scouts decided to allow transgender boys to join and welcomed its first transgender member, a 9-year-old from New Jersey, the next month.
The BSA said it has 2.3 million youth members, down about a third since 2000.
(Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York and Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; editing by Colleen Jenkins)