How do child rights work during your teenage years?

Everyone has rights. No matter who you are or where you live, you have rights. But specific groups – like children and young people – also have specific rights related only to them.  

By children, when it comes to their specific rights, we mean any person under the age of 18 years old, which includes young people or teenagers. If you are under 18 years old, your rights are protected under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC); a legally binding agreement created by the United Nations that defines the rights that all children, no matter where they live, are entitled to.  

There are many different rights covered by the CRC, but it specifically includes the right for children to be protected against gender inequality, and other forms of discrimination based on ethnicity, sexual identity and orientation, or disability.  

To date, the CRC remains the most widely accepted human rights treaty in history. By endorsing the CRC, countries agree that children are individual people with a distinct set of rights and responsibilities – appropriate to their age and stage of development.  

As mentioned, the CRC defines children as anyone under the age of 18. But most people would say there is a lot of differences between a five-year-old and a fifteen-year-old. In fact, in some countries, by the time a person is 15 or 16, they can hold a job and potentially drive a car.  

However, ‘youth’ or ‘adolescence’ is not easy to define. Every child matures and develops at their own rate, often influenced by the different situations, environments, and cultures they are raised in.  

Because this is such a particular stage in the life of a child, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has developed a specific General Comment on the Rights of the Child During Adolescence (GC No. 20). It provides guidance for countries on the steps needed to identify and support people’s rights during adolescence1, which the UN defines as occurring between the ages of 10 and 18 years old.  

So why do we care about children’s rights during adolescence specifically? Adolescence is a critical stage in life that is characterized by growing opportunities and significant vulnerabilities: 

  • Children further explore and build their identities during adolescence, as you develop a sense of self and begin to express who you are – and who you want to be – through the language you use, the art and culture you participate in and enjoy, the music you listen to, the clothes you wear, and even the classmates or friends you choose to be with; 
  • It is a crucial period of transition – adolescence can be a time for vulnerability, with increased chance of negative experiences (such as bullying, developing mental health challenges, or introduction to substance abuse) but also a time to develop positive and lifelong impacts;  
  • During adolescence, gender stereotypes and discrimination often increase. As a result, adolescent girls face more child rights violations like child marriage, gender-based violence, or sexual exploitation. These can have a negative impact on adolescent boys as well. The risks of physical and sexual violence that boys face are often not recognized, leading to services and information not being available to help them;  
  • Adolescents are agents of change with the potential to contribute positively to their families, communities and countries, and during this period, social engagement can make a real difference. To make sure all young people can contribute to change, efforts to remove the conditions that result in gender inequality and other forms of discrimination need to be made. 

The rights of children during adolescence also matter because even before young people can vote, they start to become aware of issues in their community and share their thoughts and opinions by taking part in environmental activism, peer support programs, community development projects, health programs, human rights initiatives, girls’ empowerment programs, political engagements and many more activities.  

So, what do the rights of children look like during adolescence?  

  1. Birth registration – Sometimes people do not receive a birth certificate when they are born, which can lead to issues later on in life. Young people who were not registered at birth must be provided with free late birth certificates and civil registration. 
  2. Freedom of expression – Young people must be allowed to seek, receive, and communicate information and ideas. They also have the right to express and share their views through spoken, written, and sign language and through non-verbal means, such as images, art, music, clothing, and personal style. 
  3. Freedom of religion – As young people’s understanding of the world evolves, they gain a more active role in making decisions, including decisions about their choice of religion and forms of worship. 
  4. Freedom of association – Freedom of association means that people have the right to gather and act in peaceful groups or join professional groups or associations like a union. In Canada, this right is also protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  Spending time with, and learning from, other young people can be very beneficial for adolescents so their right to freedom of association and peaceful assembly should be respected 
  5. Privacy and confidentiality – Violations of a young person’s right to privacy and confidentiality may include personal correspondences and communication such as texts or DMs, confidential medical advice, access to personal records, and use of personal data by commercial companies. While not all secrets are good to keep, parents, teachers and other adults should have a conversation with young people about what privacy means to them – and what a privacy violation may look like in their personal life. 
  6. Right to information – The ability to access information can have a significant positive impact on equality, and media plays an important role in communicating this information. As a result, young people should be allowed access to all forms of media, but particular attention should be given to online media, including social media. 

Although the digital environment may expose young people – especially young women, who may experience gender-based harassment online – to certain risks, this should not result in restrictions to online media. 

  1. Protection from all forms of violence – Young people, like all people, have the right to be protected from all forms of violence such as corporal punishment (meaning a punishment that is intended to cause physical pain to a person) in all settings. This includes sexual and gender-based violence and harmful practices which particularly affects girls like child marriage, sexual assault or harassment, or intimate partner violence. 
  2. Right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment – While we have more evidence each day of how the impacts of climate change are harming children and adolescents, we are also witnessing the extraordinary collective power of young voices, resulting in the recognition of a healthy and sustainable environment as both a key human and children’s rights. 

There are many other rights that have specific considerations for young people – including the right to health care, the right to an adequate standard of living, and the right to quality education that sets the foundations for a successful transition to decent work. To learn more about all these rights – as well as groups such as girls or young people with disabilities who may be afforded special protections – check out the full guide on the rights of childhood during adolescence here.