Eliminating Age Discrimination from Lockdown Curfews

The issue of criminalising actions only for certain groups of people, also known as status offences, they are a form of age discrimination and should be abolished
Sealed playground just outside the Slovak capital, Bratislava. Credit: Ed Holt/IPS
  • Opinion by Charlotte Cooper
  • Inter Press Service
  • Charlotte Cooper is Campaigns Coordinator at CRIN - Child Rights International Network.

Most curfews have now been eased, but the ones specific to children and young people are based on lazy and harmful stereotypes about this age group which have required little justification.

These discriminatory measures are nothing new, but rather an extension of a problem that existed before the pandemic: the issue of criminalising actions only for certain groups of people. Also known as status offences, they are a form of age discrimination and should be abolished.

Where and why have youth curfews been used?

Restrictions on children leaving their homes during the pandemic have been enforced with varying levels of severity across most regions. In one of the most severe cases, Bosnia and Herzegovina barred under-18s and over-65s from going outdoors for any reason.

Anyone from the two age groups found violating the order risked being fined, and official data confirms that police in Sarajevo issued fines to children. The country's Constitutional Court has since declared that the order violates human rights, and children are now allowed out for a few hours during three days of the week, but it has not been revoked entirely.

Meanwhile in Colombia, where the national government decreed that local authorities were allowed to impose youth curfews specifically, it appears that only two areas introduced a 24-hour curfew on under-18s and over-60s: the department of Norte de Santander and the city of Manizales, respectively home to almost 1.5 million and half a million people.

In other places, including Kazakhstan, Spain, Turkey, Ukraine, and a number of French cities, regions in Russia and counties in the United States, the curfews for under-18s have been less extreme. For instance, rules have been implemented that ban children from going out unaccompanied, or between certain times of the day. Nonetheless, these still amount to age discrimination.

The justifications given for the restrictions - if any at all - do not hold up to scrutiny. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, officials claimed that they were introduced in order to protect children, as they were a vulnerable group.

Yet research shows children are much less vulnerable to severe and fatal symptoms of Covid-19 than adults, and may also be less able to catch and spread the virus. On the other hand in Colombia and in some parts of the United States, authorities resorted to lazy generalisations claiming that young people were more likely to break social distancing rules by gathering in crowds in parks.

In both instances, the justifications mirror those given for status offences before the pandemic; they are based on claims either of children's need for protection or their propensity for criminal or anti-social behaviour.

Youth curfews as age discrimination

Youth curfews fall into so-called status offences because they prohibit behaviour that, while considered acceptable for adults - that is, being outdoors at certain times - is criminalised when carried out by under-18s. Other examples of status offences that apply to under-18s include truancy, running away from home, begging and even ‘disobedience'.

The problem with status offences is the differential treatment of under-18s - and the restriction of their rights - based purely on their age. This, by definition, amounts to age discrimination. If the reasons given for the youth curfews were genuine, then they should have logically applied to adults too, as adults, just like children and young people, also need protection from the virus - not to mention that many adults have also been flouting social distancing measures.

Youth curfews not only discriminate against under-18s and reinforce harmful stereotypes about them, but they are also not an effective means of controlling the virus if other age groups are allowed to roam freely.

What's more, the discrimination will hit some children harder than others - children who face difficulties staying in their home, many of whom are already marginalised.

This includes children who live or work on the street to survive, children who face abuse in the home, those who need to leave the house for their physical or mental health, and children living in cramped or otherwise unhealthy conditions such as refugee camps or slums.

What is the solution?

In the context of the pandemic, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has emphasised that any restrictions on children's rights must "be imposed only when necessary, be proportionate and kept to an absolute minimum". Looking beyond the pandemic, it is worth remembering the Riyadh Guidelines call on governments to "ensure that any conduct not considered an offence or not penalised if committed by an adult is not considered an offence and not penalised if committed by a young person".

Much like adults, children and young people are very conscious of the seriousness of the pandemic and its impact on their lives and others. And while a minority of people of any age may flout social distancing rules, the majority will respect them.

So rather than limiting under-18s' freedoms and exacerbating the challenges they already face, governments should stop imposing discriminatory restrictions on children and young people. Instead, they should focus on engaging children as responsible citizens who want to learn about the pandemic and are ready to help stop its spread. Let us end the injustice of status offences, for now and forever.

© Inter Press Service (2020) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service