Youth & Children's Rights

Youth Policy Working Paper 4: Exploring age-related legislation affecting children and youth

Published on

The fourth working paper in our series, and the final paper of 2016, is a literature summary of the age-related legislation that impacts the ability of children, adolescents and young people to claim their rights, access services, and independently make choices. This paper explores the international attention and focus on age-related legislation, the existing literature, and considers three of the key areas of debate amongst the child rights community. It is timed to coincide with the forthcoming “General Comment on the implementation of the rights of the child during adolescence” (General Comment on Adolescents) to accompany the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and will advocate for considerable change for age-related legislation.

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. The launch of the UN Envoy on Youth’s final campaign, #NotTooYoungToRun, shines a light on this legal obstacle that prevents many young people participating in the political process. But, as the working paper explores, it is just one of the many legislative obstacles that young people face.

In short: legal minimum age legislation is contentious, contextual and contradictory.

The paper, written by Ellen Ekhme and Alex Farrow, is based on a literature review for a research piece commissioned by the UNICEF Regional Office for Central and Eastern Europe / Commonwealth of Independent States (CEE/CIS). The research, which is expected to be published in full in 2017, explores the existing age-related legal provisions for children, adolescents and youth in 22 countries and across more than 70 domains.

Read the full paper here.

The paper begins with an introduction to minimum-ages and the existence of legislation that impacts on the lives of children and young people, particularly in the areas of education, employment, political and civic participation, and health. It discusses the foundational principles of minimum age legislation, beginning first with the principle of non-discrimination, followed by the best interests of the child, combined alongside the notions of protection and autonomy, and lastly, respect for the views of the child and evolving capacities.

[I]t remains a delicate balance between children’s right to be protected and the recognition that they also have evolving capacities and should therefore have progressive autonomy in making decisions about their lives. It is this “balance” that makes age-related legislation a contested field.

Minimum age legislation is receiving increasing attention with the Child Rights International Network (CRIN)[1], the EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) [2]and UNICEF all conducting research and analysis. The General Comment on Adolescents, now available online, goes further than the CRC and advocate for specific minimum ages in some areas, as well as the removal of minimum age limits entirely in others. This has provided a renewed impetus to explore the ways in which minimum ages impact of the ability of children to realise their rights, make decisions, express opinions, access services, and be protected.


[1]We recommend their excellent paper: Child Rights International Network (CRIN), 2016, Age is arbitrary - Discussion Paper on Setting Minimum Ages,[]
[2]UNICEF Latin America and Caribbean Regional Office, 2016, Legal minimum ages and the realisation of adolescents’ rights - A review of the situation,[]