why age matters

In more than half of countries around the world, the legal age of majority is 18 while the global average age of criminal responsibility is 12.1. In nearly a quarter of countries around the world, women’s marriageable age is younger than that of men, yet girls often lack the ability to make independent health choices before the age of 18. Voting age is almost universally 18, but the average global age to stand as a candidate is 22.2. In short: Legal minimum age legislation is contentious, contextual and contradictory.

Minimum age definitions directly influence the realities of children, adolescents and young people: when they can make independent health choices, be tried in adult courts and held in adult prisons, access financial credit for business, be heard in judicial proceedings, or consent to marriage.

In setting minimum ages, States undertake a balancing act between the need to protect and the desire to empower. How do States balance the empowerment of children whilst ensuring their safety and protection? Where does a set minimum age impede rather than promote rights?

This website provides a mapping of existing age-related legal provisions for children, adolescents and youth in more than 70 domains across 22 countries and territories, and data from a consultation in five countries, in the geographic area where the UNICEF Europe and Central Asia Regional Office works.

Adolescents in this region have to navigate between high rates of substance abuse, and in some countries

– such as Ukraine – high infection rates with HIV, while access to health services often remains limited. Children, and in particular girls, also remain vulnerable to exploitation through underage marriages. Additionally, as in many countries across the globe, children and adolescents across the region have only limited participation rights.

The mapping takes stock of existing age-related legal provisions for children, adolescents and youth across the 22 countries and territories of the CEE/CIS region. Based primarily on national laws and policies, as well as State Party Reports to the CRC and CRC Concluding Observations, this research has focused on more than 70 domains. The research highlights three themes relevant to the lives of children and adolescents: the realisation of their rights; the barriers to accessing services; and the relevance for wider policy affecting their lives.

The consultation, held in Armenia, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Romania, and Ukraine, adds depth to our understanding of the lived realities for adolescents. While it does so only in a selection of countries, it adds to the discussion of how and why age matters. In total, 5,725 adolescents between the ages of 10 and 17 participated in an online survey, and 241 adolescents shared their views in 30 focus group discussions, exploring their knowledge (or lack thereof) on a selection of minimum age laws, their perceptions of the laws themselves, and their direct experience with the laws.

Emancipatory and protective rights in adolescence

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1989. Since the Convention entered into force in 1990, it has been an important point of reference for minimum age legislation.

The Convention states that Signatory States “shall undertake all appropriate legislative, administrative, and other measures for the implementation of the rights recognized in the present Convention” (Art. 2 and 4), guided by the principles of non-discrimination (Art. 2); best interests of the child (Art. 3); respect for the views of the child (Art. 12), and take into account the evolving capacities of the child (Art. 5).

These principles are overlapping and mutually supportive, and the principles themselves share widespread recognition. Yet, it is a delicate balance between the right to be protected and the right to participation – and progressive autonomy as children’s capacities evolve.

It is exactly this balance that often makes age-related legislation so contested, particularly in adolescence, a period of rapid physical, emotional, and cognitive development. For adolescents, autonomy – meaning respect for people to make their own choices, express their own views, and take responsibility for their own

actions – is not a binary state, but rather depends on adolescents’ continually evolving capacities, in addition to opportunities and their own desires, meaning that children must not be forced to take decisions that they do not want to take.

Cultures and contexts vary widely when examining adolescence. For example, behaviours considered dangerous or inappropriate for children and adolescents of a certain age in one society may be considered normal in another. Moreover, children themselves are a highly heterogeneous group, living in a variety of environments, circumstances, and experiences. In contrast, minimum age legislation, with legally defined minimum ages, essentially relies on chronological, linear definitions of childhood and adolescence.

The limitations of chronological age definitions notwithstanding, a minimum legal age in legislation is a reflection of how a State views childhood, capacity and risk. Minimum age legislation answers the question: At what age is it appropriate for a child to acquire a right? What is “appropriate” can be seen as conditioned by various factors: how a State defines capacities, what levels of capacity the State deems necessary to make decisions, and what levels of risk the State deems acceptable.

Minimum ages: The international debate

The need to balance protective rights with participatory or emancipatory rights is one of the most fundamental challenges posed by the Committee on the Rights of the Child. This primary tension between autonomy and protection underlies the international debate on minimum age legislation.

General Comment No. 20 on the implementation of the rights of the child during adolescence from the CRC, namely Articles 39 and 40, makes specific recommendations with respect to setting legal ages (emphasis added):

39. States should review or introduce legislation recognizing the right of adolescents to take increasing responsibility for decisions affecting their lives. The Committee recommends that States introduce minimum legal age limits, consistent with the right to protection, the best interests principle and respect for the evolving capacities of adolescents. For example, age limits should recognize the right to make decisions in respect of health services or treatment, consent to adoption, change of name or applications to family courts. In all cases, the right of any child below that minimum age and able to demonstrate sufficient understanding to be entitled to give or refuse consent should be recognized […]

Consideration should also be given to the introduction of a legal presumption that adolescents are competent to seek and have access to preventive or time-sensitive sexual and reproductive health commodities and services. The Committee emphasizes that all adolescents have the right to have access to confidential medical counselling and advice without the consent of a parent or guardian, irrespective of age, if they so wish. This is distinct from the right to give medical consent and should not be subject to any age limit.

40. The Committee reminds States parties of the obligation to recognize that persons up to the age of 18 years are entitled to continuing protection from all forms of exploitation and abuse. It reaffirms that the minimum age limit should be 18 years for marriage, recruitment into the armed forces, involvement in hazardous or exploitative work and the purchase and consumption of alcohol and tobacco, in view of the degree of associated risk and harm. […]

The CRC additionally recommends in General Comment No. 10 that the absolute minimum age of criminal responsibility should be 12 years, with encouragement for States to continue to raise it. General Comment No. 4 suggested 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. However, in 2016, the Committee on the Rights of the Child reaffirmed in General Comment No. 20 that the minimum age limit should be 18 for marriage, with no mention of a lower age exception.

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 (compulsory) recruitment into the armed forces or direct participation in hostilities, and for a minimum age of 16 for voluntary enlistment. For admission to employment, the International Labour Organization (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, with a minimum age of 15 for general work – provided that it is not lower than the age at which compulsory education is completed. Light work is allowed earlier, at the age of 13 – and in countries in development, at the age of 12.
Beyond these few cases, there is no specific guidance from the CRC about when legal minimum ages should be set, or if they should be set at all. This question is highly contested, not only in the Committee, but in and between States, as well as within the broader child and human rights community.

For the European Union, data on age-related legislation concerning both a child’s right to protection and to participation has been collected by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), which runs a project on minimum age requirements in the European Union. 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. UNICEF contributes to this ongoing debate with this project – Age Matters! – looking at perceptions on how age is related to the capacity of the child; perceptions and experiences with how age influences access to services; and views on age and subjective wellbeing.

Key findings from the Age Matters research

Taken together, the mapping and the consultation in five countries reveals important insights into two ongoing debates: the tension between protection and participation, and the debate on when a child or adolescent is deemed capable.

The tension between protection and participation

• The mapping revealed that the health domain is most striking for its high minimum ages, and the area in which legal age barriers are clearly obstacles for access to services. With regards to balancing a child’s right to both protection and participation, in the health domain, it appears that protective considerations outweigh a child’s right to participate in matters affecting them.

• The consequences of high minimum ages to access medical advice were illuminated in the consultation. Adolescents reported that they did not always have access to the medical advice that they needed. Those who avoided seeking medical advice were not doing so because they lacked the capacity to speak to a doctor alone. Avoidance was more likely because their parents had to accompany them when they preferred to go alone. The top medical issues that respondents wanted to seek advice for (but did not because their parents had to be in the room) were mental health, sexual issues (e.g. pregnancy, avoiding diseases), and sexual orientation. Female respondents were refused medical advice by a doctor and avoided seeking advice at slightly higher rates than males: 2% more and 6,1% more, respectively.

• Additionally, the mapping revealed that health was the area where there were most inconsistencies between policy fields. For example, a young woman aged 17 could be married, assume legal emancipation, but require parental consent for contraception.

• Participants also perceived a tension between participatory and protective rights with regards to education and work. For example, only 23,2% “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that a young person should be allowed to leave school and work full-time if they wanted to. However, many focus group participants articulated several justifications why a young person may want to leave school early for work (e.g. poverty, to seek new experience and broaden skills).

The issue of when a child or adolescent is deemed to be capable

Adolescents who participated in our consultation felt more capable the older they were. While there were large differences in the feeling of capacity between younger adolescents (10-13) and older adolescents (14-17), a distinct subcategory of adolescents between 11 and 12 emerged. At this early age, respondents already began to see themselves as strongly capable of doing several things such as going the supermarket by themselves, staying home alone for several hours during the day, or deciding what to do in their free time.

• Many respondents felt more capable to do a certain activity if they already had the experience of doing it. Adolescents in focus groups shared past

experiences of doing something independently, giving them further confidence that they were capable enough to do it, as they could attest that these activities could be done.

No major gender differences were found in relation to subjective capacities. There was no difference in how girls and boys viewed their own capability to do various activities. This related both to everyday activities such as staying home alone, and to activities relating to health, such as speaking to a doctor without parents or guardians present.

Gendered differences were found in external circumstances that can impact capacities, or compromise protection. These included social expectations and gender roles. For example, females were seen as experiencing more parental pressure when it came to marriage than males, compromising their ability to make autonomous decisions and increasing their risk of early marriage.

• Contradictions about when a child is deemed capable emerged when comparing minimum age legislation itself. The mapping revealed that there are contradictions between what is often a low minimum age of criminal responsibility and other age legislation relating to acting independently, for example, to seek redress in court as a plaintiff. This brings up important questions: if children are accountable for crimes, why are they not considered responsible for making independent choices in other areas? Conversely, if the age of criminal responsibility is increased, does this undermine child empowerment in other areas?

• Adolescents in the focus groups debated when a child is deemed capable in relation to criminal responsibility. No consensus emerged on the age at which a young person should be held responsible for criminal actions, though there was near unanimous agreement that children should not be charged as adults. Adolescents showed a strong desire to be protected from experiences that could cause them harm, such as imprisonment, and were in favour of penalties that were oriented towards reintegration or education.

• The mapping shows that minimum ages for accessing services in the area of health are higher than in other domains, such as civic and social participation. This highlights yet another inconsistency in the presumed capacity of the child.

• Despite this, adolescents felt strongly capable to exercise their participatory rights in health, such as seeking medical advice alone without a parent/or guardian, if they wanted. From the age of 14, more than half of respondents from each age group felt that they could speak to a doctor independently.

• Few respondents felt capable to make their own decisions about medical treatment (such as injections) in a general sense, but the majority felt strongly about giving consent before receiving medical treatment specifically. Nearly one-third of respondents received a medical treatment that felt forced by their parents and/or doctor. Even if the medical treatment was deemed to ultimately be in the best interests of the child, feeling forced indicates that their voluntary and informed consent was not sought.

Adolescent voices matter

In combining a desk-based legislative review with a consultation with adolescents, this research takes the position that young people’s views matter and that they should be listened to and respected, reinforcing another key article in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 12. Article 12 on participation asserts that State parties,

shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.

Relying on the inputs of adolescents as one of the primary methodologies of this research promotes the idea that young people are capable of forming and expressing views, and ideally, that those views should have an impact. While limited to UNICEF’s Europe and Central Asia region, it is hoped that this research can act as a pilot for similar research to be deployed in all regions. This would allow for greater cross-regional analysis and comparability, and to give a chance to adolescents, including the most marginalised, to have their voices and opinions heard.

Special thanks to the nearly 6,000 adolescents who took the time to participate in this consultation. Without their participation and willingness to share their views, this research would not be possible.