For few policy areas does an international recommendation exist at what age a minimum age should be set. The Convention on the Rights of the Child is the most important global agreement in this respect. It was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in November 1989 and “is the most rapidly and widely ratified international human rights treaty in history” with 196 State Parties signing up to the Convention. In 2015 the United States of America are the only country that has not yet ratified.
The Convention makes two explicit recommendations on ages. Firstly, the definition of the child is: “every human being below the age of eighteen years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier” (Article 1). And secondly, the Convention prohibits the participation of children under the age of 15 years in hostilities (Article 38). Another achievement is the widespread consensus on the ban to impose life imprisonment or death penalty on children (Article 37).
Additionally, the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which monitors the implementation of the Convention, has in its General Comments made suggestions on specific minimum ages, in which it also draws on other international agreements:
• In General Comment No. 10 the CRC recommends that the absolute minimum age of criminal responsibility should be 12 years, with encouragement for States to continue to raise it.
• In General Comment No. 4 the Committee recommends that States increase the minimum age for marriage with and without parental consent to 18 years, while allowing for exceptional circumstances, in which a mature and capable child over the age of 16 may marry.
• General Comment No. 4 also entails the recommendation to set a minimum age for sexual consent, which should be equal for boys and girls, yet, without specifying at what age this should be set.
• Additionally, the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict (OPAC) calls for a minimum age of 18 for (compulsorily) recruitment into the armed forces or direct participation in hostilities, and for a minimum age for voluntary enlistment of 16.
• For admission to employment, not the CRC but the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has called for minimum age legislation: In ILO Convention No. 138, 1973, the minimum age for admission to hazardous labour is set at 18, and a minimum age of 15 – but not lower than the age at which compulsory education is completed – is called for generally. Light work is allowed earlier as of the age of 13 – and in countries in development at the age of 12.
• General Comment No 20 on the implementation of the rights of the child during adolescence suggests new minimum ages for purchasing alcohol and tobacco and dropping some minimum ages entirely (for access to medical advice).
These are few – yet crucial – areas of legislation. However, age related legislation exist in many other fields, explicitly – by stating a definitive age – and often implicitly – without a defined minimum age. This website allows you to explore more than 70 different minimum age legislations in 6 policy fields in 22 countries. You can find more sources on minimum ages and other age-related legislation here.
At what age is it appropriate for a child to acquire a right? Minimum age legislation answers that question, but despite the international standards on minimum age listed above, there is no general consensus about the ages at which children are able to or should be allowed to make decisions or take action in the various domains of their lives.
The need to balance protective rights with participatory or emancipatory rights is one of the most fundamental challenges posed by the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The main themes explored in the Age Matters! research— the tension between autonomy and protection, and the issue of capacity — underlie the larger international debate on minimum age legislation, involving various actors in the child-rights field:
• For the European Union data on age-related legislation concerning both the child’s right to protection and to participation has been collected by the European Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), which runs a project on minimum age requirements in the European Union.
• Within UNICEF one project looks specifically at age-related legislation in the field of HIV/AIDS in a selected number of countries.
• For Latin America and the Caribbean, the UNICEF Regional Office has commissioned a study on
»Legal minimum ages and the realization of adolescents’ rights«. It looks at six different minimum ages in 18 countries of the region and discusses how they are interconnected.
• At global level the Child Rights International Network (CRIN) has published a discussion paper on minimum ages called »Age is arbitrary«, which discusses the principles underlying age-related legislation. Read more about their discussions here.
• Other organisations focus on one or few minimum ages specifically, such as the organisation Girls not brides, which advocates against the marriage of girls under the age of 18. The organisation Child Soldiers International lobbies specifically against the involvement of children in armed conflicts and other hostilities. The Right to Education project, hosted by several global civil society organisations, looks at how legal minimum ages may interfere with the right to education. The Fact Sheets on youth policy by youthpolicy.org also collect data on minimum ages in a selected number of policy fields.
• Data on legal minimum ages across a number of fields is also collected by the World Policy Center. Another good, yet sometimes cumbersome, source for more detailed information on legal minimum ages for specific countries are the State Reports to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, which are also one source of information displayed on this site.