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Realizing an Enabling Environment for Adolescent Well-being: An inventory of laws and policies for adolescents in South Asia

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This paper takes stock of legal and policy frameworks for adolescents in the eight countries of South Asia: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Around 340 million adolescents live in the region – more than in any other region in the world – with India home to the greatest number of adolescents of any country globally (more than 250 million) and Afghanistan boasting the highest share of adolescents (26 per cent) as a proportion of the total population (UNICEF, 2016a). The eight countries also display a rich diversity of cultural, historical, political, social and economic institutions, which is reflected in their national legal and policy frameworks for adolescents. This paper sheds light on the similarities and differences among South Asian countries regarding the translation of international human rights law into their national normative frameworks, and aims to provide a nuanced understanding of how ‘adolescent-sensitive’ their legal and policy frameworks are.

Study findings are organized in this paper in line with nine overarching sets of rights for adolescents, as laid out in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC):

  • the right to political participation

  • the right to protection

  • the right to education

  • the right to health

  • the right to marriage

  • the right to decent work and protection from child labour

  • the right to social protection

  • digital rights

  • the right to equality and non-discrimination.

The paper reviews the legal coverage across these nine sets of rights, comparing the legal and policy frameworks for adolescents of the eight South Asian countries against the requirements of the international standards signed and ratified by each country.

Findings from selected legal and policy frameworks for adolescents are set out to highlight whether and how countries meet the requirements of the CRC and other international standards, and to illustrate deviations from these standards (see Table 1). In many legal and policy areas, some countries have set the minimum ages lower than those prescribed by international standards. Other countries, while broadly protecting adolescents as prescribed by international standards, nevertheless provide for significant exceptions, for example, in relation to child and early marriage.

Balancing protection and empowerment is evident in the recognition and codification (or lack thereof) of adolescents’ evolving capacities and increasing autonomy, for example, regarding the right to access sexual and reproductive health (SRH) information and services. Therefore, while some countries have legislated in ways to fulfil adolescent rights, generally in line with international standards, other countries still lack appropriate laws or policies, or have legal loopholes that raise concerns over the effective protection of adolescents as well as opportunities for their empowerment.

Areas of significant concern are juvenile justice, marriage protection, SRH, and violence and abuse.
This paper also reveals that, at the national level, legal and policy frameworks for adolescents are not always enacted in an integrated and coherent way. Legal and policy coherence (which is also enshrined in Sustainable Development Goal target 17.14) is important as the issues, inequalities and types of discrimination that affect adolescents are complex and intertwined, and thus call for policy action across multiple lines, sectors and ministries. Moreover, international human rights law states that human rights are indivisible and inalienable and must be guaranteed in a holistic and comprehensive way; coherent enacted and enforced laws and policies would support the realization of holistic adolescent well-being. The study also sought to retrieve information related to gender, disability, ethnicity and religion, but found significant gaps in the availability of such information.
Suggestive evidence does, however, show that some countries have legislated to protect some marginalized adolescent groups such as girls and to offer them opportunities to overcome barriers to their rights and development.

Furthermore, this paper highlights evidence and research gaps, and the limited publicly available information on policies and legal documents relating to adolescents. Future research and efforts are needed to fill these gaps. For instance, this study has omitted some laws and policies – such as those regarding access to decent employment opportunities, and the right to information and communication technologies– due to the limited availability of information in these areas. Also, disaggregation of information by adolescent groups would improve our understanding of the levels of concern about intersecting inequalities that adolescents face, among South Asian governments and legislators. Ultimately, as this paper focuses only on legal coverage, future research is needed to provide a nuanced understanding of the interpretation, enactment and enforcement of laws and policies – that is, the effective coverage – which might hinder the actual fulfilment of rights for adolescents.