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Minimum age: Balancing child protection and participation

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On Universal Children’s Day on 20 November, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) shines a light on differences in legal minimum ages to help the EU and its Member States eliminate inconsistencies, protection gaps and seemingly arbitrary restrictions resulting from different age thresholds.

Legal minimum ages define when and how children are involved in or have influence over procedures affecting their lives. They also determine whether and under which conditions children may exercise certain rights independently and without the authorisation of their parents. As children mature at different ages, setting age limits in law or in practice may restrict some of their rights while not offering enough protection in others.  

Some limitations lack sound criteria, and therefore seem to be solely based on adults’ assumptions and preconceived ideas about childhood. Moreover, age thresholds are sometimes confusing. For instance, in some countries the age for sexual consent is higher than the minimum age to marry.

Research from FRA and others has pointed to inconsistences across Member States, and even within national jurisdictions, when it comes to areas like child protection, child-friendly justice and migrant children in detention.

To highlight these differences the Agency mapped the national legal age requirements in various areas across the EU. The first set of findings is now available. They cover:

  • marriage and citizenship. For example, only Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden (and Poland for men only) prohibit marriage below the age of 18. The rest allow earlier marriages if there is consent from parents or a national authority. This runs counter to the UN’s Child Rights Convention, which recommends setting 18 as the minimum age for marriage.
  • political participation such as voting. Voting is a basic aspect of democracy and a right guaranteed by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Charter. Some Member States have lowered the voting age to 16 considering that children from that age are mature enough to make reasoned decisions.
  • health such as seeking medical advice without parental consent. Access to sexual health services for adolescents is crucial for their well-being and health, especially for girls, as also recommended by the UN’s Child Rights Convention Committee. However, in some Member States, the age for sexual consent is lower than the age to access sexual health services without parental consent.
  • religion such as changing religion without parental consent. In most Member States, there are no laws regulating changing a child’s religion. However, in some age limits are set, even though the EU’s Fundamental Rights Charter guarantees everyone the right to freedom of religion.

The findings underline the wide differences in the limits set by Member States across different areas. They point to the need to improve the way age limits are set to achieve consistency and better balance the need to protect children with the need to empower children.

Further findings will be released in 2018. They will cover migration and asylum, access to justice, social and economic rights, the digital world and LGBTI issues.