Database definition

Implications of Changing the Legal Definition of “Children”

Recent incidents of violence by students and the rise of “teenage gangs” have brought to the fore discussions about changing the definition of “children” in existing laws to include teenagers and adolescents in the scope of the penalty. Rights activists have reacted to the proposed change by drawing attention to Bangladesh’s commitments to international human rights instruments which affirm that the definition of “children” includes all persons under the age of 18 years old. Article 1 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – to which Bangladesh is a party – confirms this position.

The Children Act 2013 regulates trial matters in which the accused is a child (defined in Section 4 of the Act as a person under the age of 18) and provides for the procedure to be followed during the trial and detention with regard to “children in conflict with the law”. These provisions require cases in which the accused is under the age of 18 to be tried in juvenile court and provide various procedural safeguards for the accused child. Articles 33 and 34 of the 2013 law provide safeguards with regard to sentencing. Article 33 stipulates that children cannot be sentenced to death or life imprisonment. Children may only be sentenced to imprisonment to the extent permitted and if the conditions set out in article 33 are met. Article 34 provides that if a child is found guilty of an offense punishable by death or life imprisonment, he may be sentenced to detention in the “Child Development Center” for a maximum term of 10 years. For any other offence, a child may be detained at the “Child Development Center” for up to 3 years.

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A change to the definition of a child that would reduce the age of children from 18 would exclude those who do not fall under the definition of the above safeguards. There would be no legal limit to the legal penalties to which these teenagers can be sentenced, and no protection as to the conditions under which they would be held in prisons. As it stands, there are concerns about the environment of child development centers and there have been complaints of child abuse in these establishments. Under the 2013 law, there are provisions to separate children from adult prisoners if a child is sentenced to imprisonment. This would also be reversed if children of particular age groups were removed from the definition of children.

The current comprehensive approach to the juvenile justice system focuses on rehabilitation, reintegration into the mainstream and prevention of future crime, and the proposal to change the definition would have serious implications for achieving these goals. Any amendment without due consideration of the nature and motivation behind recent crime in teenage groups may not be the most prudent or effective.