DISCRIMINATION: Briefing on age discrimination

Menu: Introduction - global snapshot of age discrimination - why children experience age discrimination - why children should be protected from age discrimination - challenging age discrimination - resources



Discrimination is a major reason why children's rights remain unfulfilled.

Children face discrimination in most societies in comparison to adults because they have less power. This is a result of children’s dependence on adults and adult reluctance to give them more power as they develop the ability to exercise this themselves.

Children experience direct discrimination when they are deliberately and unjustifiably treated less favourably than adults or other children would be treated in a similar situation. For example, in many countries the law protects adults from corporal punishment, but does not protect children in the same way.

Indirect discrimination
results when a policy or rule applies to everyone, but has an inadvertent but unfair impact on people in a particular group. For example, the failure of the State to address the impact of its socio-economic policies on children could be argued to be indirect discrimination - and certainly, children are rarely considered in the development of macroeconomic policies.

Most countries have legislation protecting older adults from age-based discrimination. However, age discrimination against children is not widely recognised or seen as wrong. Australia is one of the few countries which has comprehensive legislation protecting children from age discrimination, including in access to goods, facilities and services.


Global snapshot of age discrimination

In many countries, children may be detained for acts which are not treated as offences when committed by adults. These are often known as “status offences”, and prohibit conduct that is considered unacceptable not because it is harmful, but solely on the basis of age. Status offences take many different forms in countries, States, and localities around the world - examples include curfew violations, school truancy, running away, begging, anti-social behaviour, gang association, and even simple disobedience or bad behaviour.
Read CRIN's report on status offences here.

Children's rights are frequently violated as a result of indirect discrimination which arises because of unequal access to the courts compared with adults and therefore unequal access to justice. In China, for example, under 18s are not allowed to file complaints in court, or to be consulted directly by the courts without parental consent. The only exception is for children over 16 who earn their own livelihood (Concluding Observations of the Committee on the Rights of the Child for China's Second Periodic Report, 2005).

In some countries, minors who have children are prevented from acknowledging them solely because of their age. In Uruguay, article 235 of the Civil Code provides that unmarried children under 18 cannot be registered as their child's parent. Unmarried adults are not subject to the same law (Comité de los derechos del niño – Uruguay and Save the Children Sweden (2005) “Discrimination and Human Rights in Uruguay – The voice of children and adolescents”).


Why do children experience age discrimination?

The biggest challenge for the realisation of children’s rights is still societal attitude, and how people view children. The status of children is simply not as high as other human beings. People are recognising the human rights treaties, but there are still many stumbling blocks.
Yanghee Lee, Chair of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child
CRIN Interview, September 2008

Age discrimination against children stems from ideas about childhood and the relative lack of respect for, and status granted to, children's rights compared to those of other human beings.

In most societies, children are presumed to lack the capacity to exercise their rights for themselves because they do not have the life experience and competence to make informed, rational decisions and must therefore be protected from the consequences of bad decisions. It is often assumed that age limits are the best way of achieving this protection, even if some children might attain competence at a younger age and others attain this later.

Clearly the aim of defining a child as being under 18 and of establishing age limits is protective. Indeed, some differential treatment based on age is necessary to guarantee children's protection, for example, a child should clearly not be able to participate in armed conflict as a combatant, and young children need special safety harnesses in cars to account for the smaller physical size, for example.

However, in many cases, children's age and relative lack of experience is used as a justification for denying children rights to which they are entitled. In other words, children face exclusion and unfair treatment because of the low status accorded to childhood in most societies. For example, in most countries, children are often not allowed to file complaints with a court where adults can. This can have a detrimental impact on children's protection.

Indeed, children often demonstrate the capacity for making rational decisions. In hospital trials for example, children as young as five have shown that they are able to decide how much pain-relieving medicine they need to control their pain – and have kept their doses within safe limits (1). Furthermore, some children have to take on exceptional responsibilities in caring for younger siblings or a sick parent.

Some have argued that if people were barred from exercising their rights because they were not deemed competent or skilled decision-makers, many adults would also be excluded from exercising their rights (2).

Article 5 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child introduces the idea of allowing children to exercise their rights as they acquire competence rather than when they reach a certain age. This article recognises the responsibility of parents and other carers to direct and guide the child in exercising these rights where necessary. The issue here is not whether children have rights, as all children do, but rather whether their parents or carers should help them to exercise these or whether children can do this themselves.

Gerison Lansdown summarises the concept of evolving capacities as "central to the balance embodied in the Convention between recognising children as active agents in their own lives, entitled to be listened to, respected and granted increasing autonomy in the exercise of rights, while also being entitled to protection in accordance with their relative immaturity and youth”.

For a detailed discussion of the concept of evolving capacities, and its relationship with discrimination, see “The Evolving Capacities of the Child”, Gerison Lansdown (2005), published by UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre and Save the Children Sweden.


Why children should be protected from age discrimination

It's unfair! Age discrimination disadvantages children solely on account of their physical, emotional and intellectual immaturity and lack of life experience.

It's silencing! Age discrimination denies children the right to participate in decisions that deeply affect their lives – rather than silencing them, we must encourage and prepare children to be fully integrated members of society.

It's taxation without representation! Age discrimination prevents children from participating in national, state, and local government. Although children (albeit a minority) - are expected to pay taxes and required to contribute to society, they are not allowed to vote and thus cannot participate in the democratic process that so clearly affects them.

It's segregation! Age discrimination shuts children out of society. In some cultures, for example in the UK, public and private policies that deny children access to shops, banks, libraries, and other places or services treat children as second-class citizens and prevent them from engaging in civic life.

It doesn't pay! Age discrimination places means that young people are often paid less than adults for doing the same job. Junior wages undervalue their contributions and many face harassment as targets of violence and unlawful termination. Because young people may fear losing their jobs, they often feel they cannot complain of discrimination.

It's no fun! Age discrimination can interfere with children's basic need and right to unwind and spend time with one another. Curfews and other laws that discourage children from socialising prevent them from enjoying the leisure, recreational, and cultural activities that make their lives rich and fulfilling.

It's damaging! Age discrimination reinforces stereotypes that young people are helpless, marginalised, and delinquent. Children may struggle to build positive identities and maintain a strong sense of self in the face of ideas that they are fundamentally inferior.


Challenging age based discrimination against children

From issuing declarations to passing legislation or even amending national constitutions, many countries and international organisations have taken action to ensure that children enjoy the same rights and protections as adults.

CRIN has compiled a report on what legislative measures have been taken across the world and some of the advocacy materials that were used to secure these.  Read this report here.

Status offences encompass acts that would not be criminal if they were committed by adults. This means that a status offender's conduct is considered unacceptable not because it is harmful, but solely on the basis of age. Status offences take many different forms in countries, states, and localities around the world - examples include curfew violations, school truancy, running away, begging, anti-social behaviour, gang association, and even simple disobedience or bad behaviour.

CRIN has published a report on status offences around the world, calling for their abolition to protect children from harmful age discrimination. Read this report here.

Read more about how to challenge age based discrimination against children beyond legislation here.




1) "All Right at Home? Promoting children's human rights in family life" by Judy Miller, 1999, Barnardos, Children's Rights Office, The Children's Society, NCH Action for Children, NSPCC, Save the Children, p. 29

2) Bob Franklin, Children's rights means citizens' rights, from "Measuring Maturity: Understanding children's "evolving capacities", CRIN Review 2009, forthcoming


    Please note that these reports are hosted by CRIN as a resource for Child Rights campaigners, researchers and other interested parties. Unless otherwise stated, they are not the work of CRIN and their inclusion in our database does not necessarily signify endorsement or agreement with their content by CRIN.