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A Delicate Balance: protecting and empowering young people in South Asia

An inventory of the laws and policies of eight South Asian countries examines whether policy and legal frameworks are sensitive to adolescent well-being, and adhere to international standards.
22 May 2018

(22 May 2018) UNICEF’s latest Strategic Plan explicitly prioritises the crucial second decade: adolescence. This is a period of huge vulnerability and a great opportunity to make investments that can pay enormous dividends today as well as for future generations. However, in order for adolescents to thrive and reach their full potential, legal and policy frameworks must be improved to ensure all children’s rights are respected and protected.

Adolescent girls run and play kabaddi in the playground of the Government Middle School in Badhwa, India. 


A recent report, Realising an Enabling Environment for Adolescent Wellbeing: An Inventory of Laws and Policies for Adolescents in South Asia, provides an overview of these essential frameworks (through 2016) and how they relate to adolescents’ evolving capacities. The inventory, compiled by UNICEF Innocenti’s Elena Camilletti, provides a platform for policy makers and programmers to understand what has been enacted in the South Asian region. It also provides analysis of what can be further improved in order to bring legal and policy frameworks in line with international standards to ensure adolescents can fulfil their potential, make decisions and participate fully in society.

With 340 million adolescents in South Asia, there are more young people living here than in any other region in the world. India alone is home to more than 250 million adolescents. This stock-taking exercise of eight South Asian countries - Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka - sheds light on the similarities and differences among these countries regarding the translation of international human rights law into national normative frameworks. Nine domains of child rights are examined: political rights; protection; education; health; marriage; protection from child labour; social protection; digital rights; equality and non-discrimination.


Research has revealed that this transformative period offers a unique window of opportunity to influence the development and outcomes of children and young people. The delicate balance between protection and empowerment presents a challenge unique to this increasingly independent age group. Laws and policies, then, must strike a balance between protecting adolescents from vulnerabilities and risks, while recognising their growing autonomy and capacity to make responsible decisions. The study reveals that this challenge can result in incoherent legislation, including loopholes that raise concerns over the effective protection of adolescents as well as opportunities for their empowerment.

Commenting on the results, Elena Camilletti observes that “grey areas are exposed throughout the analysis. In some countries and in some of the nine domains of rights examined, the policy and legal frameworks don’t clearly contradict international standards, but they also do not enable adolescents to thrive.”

Laws and policies are not always enacted in a coherent and integrated way, for example discrepancies exist between the minimum age for the end of compulsory education and the minimum age for admission to employment. This is important, as the issues affecting adolescents are complex and intertwined and thus call for policy action across multiple lines. Significant exceptions in laws and policies, for example in relation to early marriage, similarly limit their effectiveness. There are examples of outright contraventions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child with some minimum age requirements lower than those prescribed.

The table shows selected laws and policies, and compares these national provisions with international standards. Cells are coloured according to whether a country’s legal and policy frameworks are fully in line with international standards, including by providing specific protections for adolescents (green), partially in line with them (yellow) or clearly contravene them (red). Grey cells denote frameworks for which there are no clear requirements in international law, or for which no information was found.


“Each country has made efforts to meet minimum international standards, but each country also has a lot left to do” according to Camilletti. “In particular, improvements can be made in the protective sphere, for example doing more to protect adolescents from exploitation.” She also stresses the importance of appropriate and coherent laws and policies which consider adolescent rights in their indivisible entirety.

This study is a first step towards understanding the legal coverage for the protection and empowerment of adolescents in specific institutional contexts. Recognizing that implementation gaps (the effective coverage) can undermine legal protection, this report calls for future studies to explore laws and policies in practice, where the interpretation, enactment and enforcement may influence the fulfilment of rights for adolescents. Another consideration is how adolescents themselves perceive these laws. Parallel UNICEF initiatives, including Latin America and the Caribbean region’s study on legal minimum ages and the Europe and Central Asia region’s Age matters! Project conducted by Youth Policy Labs, are exploring these questions in different contexts and helping to fill evidence gaps in the area.

The eight countries analysed share some cultural, political and social similarities, yet are at the same time incredibly diverse. Beyond human rights codified by international standards, the Sustainable Development Goals are an opportunity for the governments of these countries to systematically address development issues and work towards the 2030 deadline. The interests of young people are represented in many of these goals, targets, and indicators. With this in mind, national laws and policies, in addition to programmes and interventions, must be advanced to better protect and empower adolescents.