Former child soldiers in Sudan walk away from the weapons they once carried.
In some countries the law considers you old enough to die for your country before you're old enough to vote. In others, you could be forced to become a child soldier in spite of laws forbidding the practice.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child says that no one under the age of 15 should have to fight in a war. An optional protocol, or formal addition, to the Convention pushes that age up to 18. Voluntary recruitment of under-18s is not forbidden by this protocol, but under-18 recruits must have the consent of their parents or guardians and should not be involved in combat. So far, this protocol has been signed by 111 countries and ratified – given legal force – by 54 of those countries.
Quite a few countries allow voluntary recruitment in the armed forces from the age of 16 or even 15, and voluntary recruitment at 17 is common. A few countries, including Israel and Cuba, have conscription – compulsory recruitment – from the age of 17. But in countries that have conscription, 18 is by far the most common age.
Shockingly, however, in many parts of the world, much younger children continue to be forced into both State armies and other armed groups when conflicts break out – to kill and be killed.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child makes it clear that if you are under 18 you should not have to do work that harms or exploits you.
Harmful work is defined as work that:
• damages your health and development
• causes you physical or emotional stress
• prevents you from getting an education
• prevents you from having time to rest and play.
Exploitative work is work that:
• you are forced to do
• involves buying or selling you (child trafficking)
• involves being prostituted or used in pornography
• takes away your dignity and self-esteem
• doesn't pay fairly.
It is generally thought that work that does not violate these conditions can be good for you, and the International Labour Organization Convention says that you should be able to do light work from the age of 13 (or as young as 12 in countries at a lower level of development) as long as it does not interfere with your education.
'Child labour' is the term used for work that doesn't meet those standards.
Two married girls (in front) wait for their husbands during a wedding celebration in India.
The legal age of consent – the minimum legal age at which you can decide to have sex with someone – varies quite a bit around the world.
To give just a few examples of the heterosexual age of consent: If you are living in some parts of the United States, or in Egypt, it's 18; in Northern Ireland, it's 17; in Namibia, 16; in Sweden, 15; in Canada, 14; in Korea, 13; in Mexico, 12. But 16 is by far the most common age of consent.
In some countries, there are also different ages of consent for girls and for boys, and for gay men and lesbians, though in many countries gay and lesbian sex remains illegal.
There aren't any international laws or guidelines on the age of consent, though the Convention on the Rights of the Child says that you have the right to be protected from all forms of sexual abuse and exploitation. In addition, the Committee on the Rights of the Child, which keeps track of how children's rights are being implemented around the world, argues that countries with a low legal age of consent should raise it.
But hang on a minute!
There are one or two other points to bear in mind. No one, no matter how old, should ever feel under pressure to have sex. And the age of consent, whatever it may be in your country, certainly doesn't mean you should be having sex at that age.
There's also the life-and-death question of HIV/AIDS and the risks of other sexually transmitted infections. So as well as 'Am I legally old enough?', you need to ask yourself other questions. Do I really think I’m ready? Am I under any pressure, from others or in my own mind? Do I know what I’m doing? Do I understand the risks? Do I know how to protect myself?
Remember the ABCs of protection:
Abstain from sex or delay the age at which you first have it. Remember, the safest sex is no sex at all!
Be faithful Have sex with one partner who has been tested so you know he or she is not infected with HIV. And make sure you are also not infected with the HIV virus.
Use a Condom Use a condom every time you have sex, including oral sex.
Students tallying their school’s contribution to the Children’s Elections held all over Mexico during the 2000 national elections.
The age at which you can vote in government elections (sometimes called 'the age of majority' – when you are no longer considered a minor) also varies quite a lot from country to country, though 18 is by far the most common voting age.
A few examples: In Iran, the voting age is 15; in Cyprus and Cuba, 16; in Indonesia, 17; in Bolivia, it's 18 if you are married but 21 if you are single; in Austria and Jordan, it's 19; in Cameroon and Japan, 20; in Côte d'Ivoire, Kuwait and Sierra Leone, 21.
Jose, 18, from Timor Leste, speaks about the impact of war on children at a special meeting of the UN Security Council in New York.
Even if you are too young to vote, you are old enough to have opinions. What's more, the Convention on the Rights of the Child says you have the right to express those opinions – and have them listened to. In particular, you should have your say in decisions that affect you, and your opinions should be given 'due weight' according to your age and maturity. You also have the right to form groups and associations.
There are many ways in which you can get involved and make your voice heard, such as through the media, by joining or setting up school councils and by participating in a local youth parliament, if there is one.
Page last updated at 05:07 PM