What is a legal minimum age?

A legal minimum age is the age at which a person is legally permitted to engage in an activity, for example: vote, work, marry, or leave education.

Legal minimum ages are related to important issues such as child labour, child soldiers, criminal liability and early marriage. 

For some activities, human rights law defines specific minimum ages:

For other activities, human rights law requires that minimum ages be decided by the state and enshrined in domestic law:

  • For criminal responsibility the Committee on the Rights of the Child recommends that the minimum age be no lower than twelve; however, this is the absolute minimum and should be revised upwards where possible.
  • Both the Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women have stated that the minimum age for marriage should be no lower than eighteen for both men and women.

See comparative table on national minimum age legislation.

Minimum legal ages should be dependent on the activity in question and balance at least two concerns:

Firstly, children form a group who require special protection. The Preamble of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC, 1989) states: 'the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguard and care'.  Legal minimum ages serve to protect children from harmful practices and maltreatment. Article 19 of the CRC 'calls upon states to take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury and abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse'.

Secondly, children should be empowered in accordance with their maturity and capacities. They should be granted the autonomy to direct their own lives and make decisions for themselves, where possible (Article 5).

Additionally, the CRC general principles should also be considered: non-discrimination (Article 2), the best interests of the child (Article 3), the right to life, survival and development (Article 6) and respect for the views of the child (Article 12). 

In human rights law, education shall be free and compulsory for all, at least at the primary level and progressively realised thereafter. Moreover, Article 13 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) states '(…) education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity'. Education also facilitates autonomous decision making and participation in social life. To achieve this, children should be educated for as long as is possible, according to available resources, and minimum age legislation protects these vital aims of education.

Indeed, ILO Minimum Age Convention (1973) provides that the minimum age for entering employment shall be no less than the age at which compulsory education ends, and in any case shall be no lower than fifteen (fourteen for states that have insufficiently developed economies and educational systems).

This principle can and should be applied to practices such as early marriage, underage conscription, and being subject to criminal liability (and therefore possible imprisonment) because they also prevent children from benefiting from free and compulsory education by excluding them from the education system.

Furthermore, compulsory and free education is the best way to remove children from harmful practices. If children are in education, they are less likely to marry early, work or commit criminal offences. 

Benchmark ages should be consistent in order to guarantee and protect the right to education of children. In many states, minimum age legislation is inconsistent with the obligation to ensure free and compulsory education, or worse, absent. In states where minimum age legislation is harmonised, it is often not effectively enforced.

There are many impediments to consistent minimum age legislation. Firstly, human rights law often fails to specify minimum ages, leaving it up to states to decide. For example, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (1979) prohibits early marriage but fails to set a minimum age (Article 16 (2)). This leaves girls vulnerable to potential discrimination, as girls are more likely to marry at an earlier age, and states often institutionalise this inequality.

Where minimum age legislation exists, ages are often set too low. In some states, the age of criminal responsibility is as low as seven years old. If the age of completion of compulsory and free education is above this age (and it should be according to human rights law), then children in conflict with the law (or facing juvenile justice) can face serious barriers to accessing education. 

General principles and provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) relevant to minimum age

Compulsory education

See International Instruments - Free and Compulsory Education

Minimum age of military recruitment

For more details, see International Instruments - Minimum Age of Military Recruitment

Minimum age of employment

For more details, see International Instruments - Minimum Age of Employment

Minimum age of marriage

For more details, see International Instruments - Minimum Age of Marriage

Criminal responsibility

For more details, see International Instruments - Minimum Age of Criminal Responsibility