where age matters

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

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

The question of legal minimum ages is particularly relevant for adolescents’ rights – and for policy and programming approaches supporting their realisation. This website provides information on existing age-related legal provisions for children, adolescents and youth in more than 70 domains. It does so for 22 countries and territories in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the region in which the UNICEF Regional Office for Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States 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 for example under age marriages. Additionally, children and adolescents across the region have, as in many countries across the globe, only limited participation rights.

The mapping of age-related barriers on this page illustrates shows national minimum age legislation in the region and contradictions therein. These may weaken the realisation of both protective as well as emancipatory principles of the Convention on the Rights of Child. However, a mapping of legal minimum ages is only a first step, which will be followed by consultation with adolescents on how minimum age legislation shapes their realities across CEE/CIS.

If you want to contribute to this research and the debate on minimum ages, please write to agematters@youthpolicy.org

International standards on minimum ages

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.

• In 2015 the CRC has started the development of a new General Comment No 20 on the implementation of the rights of the child during adolescence. This new General Comment is due to be passed in late 2016. A first draft (April 2016) of the General Comment suggested new minimum ages for purchasing alcohol and tobacco, as well as 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.