Empowerment: Children & Youth: Definitions & Conceptual Issues

This section offers definitions for the main terms related to the concepts of children, youth and adolescence, as well as the conceptual issues that they present. The most concrete challenges attached to the application of these concepts in policies and programs are addressed in the section Key Debates and Implementation Challenges.

Definitions and conceptual issues regarding children

Definition of a child

Article 1 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states: "For the purposes of the present Convention, a child means every human being below the age of eighteen years unless, under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier."

There is general consensus among international circles that an individual under the age of 18 is considered a child. However, the term 'age of majority' "means different things when used in a legal, religious, or customary context. This ambiguity, to some extent, tends to undermine the definition of the term 'child' as used in the Child Convention."1 Understanding that 'age of majority' is attained at different ages according to different religions, cultures and legal systems has very concreted consequences. "In a social context, for example, legal responsibilities such as contracting obligations, including marriage, purchase of land, testifying as a witness in court proceedings and, sometimes under oath, being criminally responsible for unlawful acts or omission, eligibility for voting in local or national elections, and participation in armed conflicts, are used as indicators for determining age of majority." 2 The result is that in some cultures and religions, a 12 year-old female may be considered an 'adult' for the purpose of marriage, though not for other purposes. Many social scientists have shown that, in non-Western societies, particularly in rural areas where traditional ways remain strong, a person is regarded as an adult once he or she has completed the culturally scripted initiation ceremony or rite of passage into manhood or womanhood. Typically, such rites occur around 14 years of age. Also, many developing societies define childhood and adulthood in terms of labor and social roles, saying that people become adults when they do adult work. "Owing to this definitional gap, a 15 year-old boy carrying an automatic rifle and traveling with a military group might be viewed as a child by international human rights observers, but the same individual might be viewed as a young adult by people in a rural African village."3 By acknowledging that different cultures consider children as adults at different times, the protection afforded children may be lessened.  Go to definition of child soldiers

It is worth noting that most instruments of international humanitarian law (such as the 1899 and 1907 Hague Conventions, and the 1949 Geneva Conventions and its additional protocols) do not suggest clear definition of the notion of 'child.' However, article 1 of the 2000 Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict raised the minimum age for direct participation in hostilities from 15 to 18, thereby explicitly providing an age-definition of a child soldier and, as a consequence, defining a child as an individual under the age of 18.

Terminology such as 'youth' or 'young people' may be used in lieu of 'children' to describe those in the crucial 15-18 age bracket whose physical, emotional and intellectual maturity is rapidly developing even as they continue to face certain legal constraints. The rationale for this shift in terminology is to delineate the specific needs and attributes of this population, while maintaining the legal protections, noting that "clearly, those under 18, no matter their individual capacities, are generally presumed not to appreciate fully the nature and consequences of their actions."4 Therefore, they should be protected as children.

Definition of unaccompanied children

Unaccompanied children are those who are separated from both parents and are not in the care of another adult who, by law or custom, has taken responsibility to care for them. The situation of unaccompanied children is of particular concern for refugees and displaced persons as children got often separated from their parents and family when fleeing violence.

Definition of child soldiers

According to the Cape Town principles, devised by leading scholars and practitioners convened by United Nations Childrens Fund (UNICEF), in 1997, "A 'child soldier' is any person under 18 years of age who is part of any kind of regular combatants, cooks, porters, messengers and anyone accompanying such groups, other than family members. The definition includes girls recruited for sexual purposes and for forced marriage. It does not, therefore, only refer to a child who is carrying or has carried arms. Some boys and girls might have been abducted or forcibly recruited; others have been driven to join by poverty, abuse and discrimination, societal or peer pressure, or to seek revenge for violence against them or their families."5

In this view, 'child soldier' is a highly diverse category, and the term does not expressly imply that the child was a combatant or that the child participated willingly in wrongdoing. As a broadly applicable definition, it encompasses individuals with very different experiences and needs.

To avoid blurring the needs and attributes of children and youth who have distinct experiences in violence, some analysts suggest distinguishing young gang members from child soldiers. One of the arguments advanced is that, "child soldiers who see themselves as participating in a liberation struggle may derive meaning from their participation in political violence in ways that gang members do not."6 In light of these complexities, some stakeholders refer the label children (or minors) associated with fighting forces (CAFF) rather than 'child soldier.' Child soldiers are also called 'young people,' 'underage soldiers,' or 'minor soldiers', by local actors and humanitarian workers.7 Though often used interchangeably, the term child soldiers remains the main point of reference, in particular as it is now embedded in various international instruments.

Different studies have shown that an age-based definition of childhood does not fit some cultural contexts, in particular as far as the definition of child soldiers is considered. For instance, a study on the situation of child soldiers in Mozambique has shown that all fighters in the Mozambique civil war were considered children, defined so on the basis of the 'child-to-father' relationship which framed the experiences of young people in the military service.8 In other words, local understandings and appellations may refer to very different approaches of the notion of childhood that need to be understood by practitioners.  Go to Key debates and implementation challenges

Definition of child sexual exploitation

Child sexual exploitation is defined as a situation in which an individual takes "unfair advantage of some imbalance of power between themselves and another person under the age of 18 in order to sexually use them."9 UNICEF further explains that in child sexual exploitation, a second party benefits-- through making a profit or through a quid pro quo-- through sexual activity involving a child.10

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Definitions and conceptual issues regarding notions of youth and young people

As underscored by UNDP, "Youth is a problematic and ambivalent term. While age is the most straightforward criterion for defining youth, it is not necessarily the most significant one. Social and cultural considerations play an important role in defining the meaning of youth."11 Indeed, the notions of youth and adulthood are defined differently in different cultures. For example, some rural communities in Kenya conceive of youth as ending at 35 when persons become eligible for a presidency.12 Micro-contexts (communities) also play a role as youth may have distinct roles shaped by numerous variables such as gender, ethnicity, class, impact of the conflict, multiple roles played during the conflict, whether or not they have been displaced, etc. It is obviously important to consider these different dimensions when examining specific cases and designing intervention programs.

The UN agencies generally define youth as persons between the ages of 15 and 24 years. The terms 'youth' and 'young people' are often used interchangeably to mean adolescents (10 to 19 according to UNICEF and WHO) and young adults, up to 24 years of age by practitioners.13

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Definitions and conceptual issues regarding notions of adolescent and adolescence


The term adolescent, meaning a person in transition from puberty to adulthood, is based primarily on Western theories of child development that may not apply cross-culturally. There are a host of definitions and interpretations of who adolescents are and what marks the transition to adolescence. For example, "adolescents are characterized as 10 to 19 year-olds by the World Health Organization; young men who have not undergone circumcision in Xhosa tradition; and people in the 'second decade of life' by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)They are not young children and they are not adults."14


"Adolescence is widely defined as the time in life when the developing individual attains the skills and attributes necessary to become a productive and reproductive adult."15 Nearly all cultures recognize a phase in life acknowledging these emerging capacities of young people. What varies considerably by culture and context is whether the passage from childhood to adulthood is a direct and short passage, or whether there is prolonged adolescence marked by a choice of identities or roles.16 The ages concerned may also vary considerably, although many practitioners follow UNICEF and WHO's range of 10-19 years of age. But as UNICEF notes, "it [adolescence] is clearly not something that starts at 10 years of age and ends at 19 years for everyone...and the meaning attached to words such as youth and adolescent varies between countries and cultures-- in some languages they may even have a somewhat negative or pejorative connotation."17 Adolescence is ultimately defined by its cultural and societal context, and this must be taken into account when designing and implementing programs for adolescents in each setting.18 However, UNICEF also notes that despite this variability, the most vulnerable age group is likely to be fairly universal, namely people between ten and twenty years of age.19

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Concepts related to the qualification of their situation


The notion of protection refers to all actions aimed at ensuring that children and young people get their rights protected. Protection activities aim at preventing or putting a stop to a specific pattern of abuse and/or alleviates its immediate effects; restoring their dignity and ensuring adequate living conditions through reparation, restitution, and rehabilitation; fostering an environment conducive to respect for the rights of individuals in accordance with the relevant bodies of law.


Empowerment is generally defined as a bottom-up and participatory process that engages the actors concerned in reflection, inquiry, and action. In other words, the population in question is no longer considered as mere 'beneficiaries' of assistance programs but instead truly acknowledged as actors with interests, projects, resources, and strategies. Devising coherent policies and programs for children and youth empowerment requires careful attention because external agencies/bodies tend to be positioned with power over the actors concerned. Empowerment also requires an understanding of power relations in a given community, and how a groups position in the hierarchy may have evolved as a result of the direct participation of some of them in violence.
Go to Women and gender Definitions and conceptual issues

1. Alex Obote-Odora, "Legal Problems with Protection of Children in Armed Conflict." Murdoch University Electronic Journal of Law 6, no. 2 (June 1999).
2. Ibid.
3. Michael Wessells, Child Soldiers: From Violence to Protection (Harvard University Press: 2007), 5.
4. Elizabeth Protacio-De Castro Ph.D., "Children in Armed Conflict Situations: Focus on Child Soldiers in the Philippines," Kasarinlan 16, no. 2,Third World Studies Center, University of the Philippines (2001).
5. UNICEF, "Child Protection Information Sheet: children associated with armed groups."
6. Wessells, Child Soldiers: From Violence to Protection, 5-8.
7. Ibid., 5.
8. Jessica Schafer, "The Use of Patriarchal Imagery in the Civil War in Mozambique and its Implication for the Reintegration of Child Soldiers," in Youth on the Front Line: Ethnography, Armed Conflict and Displacement ed. Boyden, Jo and Joanna De Berry (Berghahn Books: 2004), 88.
9. OConnell Davidson, The Sex Exploiter, NGO Group for the Convention on the Rights of the Child (2001), 4.
10. Lisa Alfredson, "Sexual Exploitation of Child Soldiers: An Exploration and Analysis of Global Dimensions and Trends," Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, UNICEF.
11. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), "Youth and Violent Conflict: Society and Development in Crisis?," United Nations Development Programme, 2006, 56.
12. Afua Twum-Danso, "The Political Child," in Invisible Stakeholders: Children and War in Africa, ed. Angela McIntyre (South Africa: Institute for Security Studies, 2005), 13.
13. Womens Commission for Refugee Women and Children (WCRWC), Untapped Potential: Adolescents Affected by Armed Conflict. A Review of Programs and Policies, (New York: 2000), 10.
14. Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children. "Untapped Potential: Adolescents Affected by Armed Conflict." A Review of Programs and Policies. New York: 2000, 3.
15. Gary Barker, Adolescents, Social-Support and Help-Seeking Behaviour (World Health Organisation: 2007), 1.
16. Ibid and Yvonne Kemper, "Youth in War to Peace Transitions," Berghof Research Center for Constructive Conflict Management, Berghof Report No. 10 (January 2005), 8.
17. Youth Health for Change A UNICEF Notebook on Programming for Young Peoples Health and Development (UNICEF: 1996).Youth Health for Change – A UNICEF Notebook on Programming for Young People’s Health and Development (UNICEF: 1996)
18. WCRWC, "Untapped Potential: Adolescents Affected by Armed Conflict. A Review of Programs and Policies," 10.
19. Ibid.

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