At what age are school children employed, married and taken to court?Children’s right to education is being seriously undermined in dozens of countries by contradictory laws that allow them to work, be married or held criminally responsible at an age when they are legally bound to be in school, concludes a report launched in Geneva (Switzerland) today by the Right to Education Project*, and UNESCO’s International Bureau of Education**.
“In the same country,” concludes Angela Melchiorre, children’s rights expert and the author of At what age…are children employed, married and taken to court?, “it is not rare to find that children are legally obliged to go to school until they are 14 or 15 years old but that a different law allows them to work at an earlier age or to be married at the age of 12 or to be criminally responsible from the age of seven.”
The report, launched on the occasion of Education for All Week (April 19-25)***, found that there is no compulsory education in at least 25 States, of which ten are in sub-Saharan Africa, six in East Asia and the Pacific, four in the Arab States, three in South and West Asia and two in Latin America and the Caribbean. Only 45 of 158 nations surveyed have equalized the school-leaving age and the minimum age for employment. In 36 countries, children can be employed full-time while they are still obliged to be in full-time education. At the other end of the scale, children in another 21 countries must wait at least a year, and sometimes three, after completing compulsory education, before they can legally work.
“The goals of universal education and elimination of child labour are inextricably linked,” stresses the report. “Free and compulsory education of good quality secured until the minimum age for entry to employment is a critical factor in the struggle against economic exploitation of children, while child labour is a fundamental obstacle to the development and implementation of compulsory education strategies.”
According to the author, there is no minimum age for marriage in 38 countries, 15 of which are in sub-Saharan Africa, seven in East Asia and the Pacific, six in Latin America and the Caribbean, four in South and West Asia, four in the Arab States and two in North America and Western Europe. In another 44, girls can marry at a younger age than boys. In addition, in many parts of the world, once girls marry they are considered to have attained majority, which means they may lose the protection offered by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
The report also points out that in many countries civil, religious, customary and traditional laws on marriage exist side by side, with no hierarchy between them. In such cases, it notes, a statutory minimum age for marriage reveals only part of the picture. “Moreover,” states the report, “marriages may not be registered, which makes the relevance of the law doubtful.”
Article 40.3 of the CRC requires States to promote “the establishment of a minimum age below which children shall be presumed not to have the capacity to infringe penal law.” The report notes that there is no minimum age for criminal responsibility in six States. In another 32, children can be held criminally responsible from the age of seven. However, the situation remains unclear in many other parts of the world.
“Many countries,” says the author, “report that children can be held criminally responsible for ‘serious’ crimes at a younger age than for minor offences. Often the lists of these serious crimes are somewhat elastic and range from murder to ‘malicious hooliganism’ or minor traffic offences, thus adding to the mystification and flexibility of the issue.”
The data presented in this second edition of At what age…? are based on reports from 158 of the 192 States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It aims to assess progress and encourage cross-country comparison to determine the impact of the Convention.
* The Right to Education Project is an applied human rights research project comprised of a network of contributors from Brazil to New Zealand and headed by Dr Katarina Tomasevski, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights Special Rapporteur. For more information and access to the report online, go to: www.right-to-education.org
**The UNESCO International Bureau of Education, based in Geneva, is an autonomous institute specializing in educational content and policy. For more information go to: www.ibe.unesco.org
*** For more information on EFA Week and related activities, go to www.unesco.org/education/efa/index.shtml