Author Q&A: Jacqueline Bhabha, Human Rights and Adolescence

Human Rights and AdolescenceWe continue our ongoing series of Fall 2014 author Q&As (previously: Cathy Lisa Schneider, Police Power and Race Riots; Jennifer Curtis, Human Rights as War by Other Means; Matt Cohen and Edlie Wong, The Killers: A Narrative of Real Life in Philadelphia) today with Jacqueline Bhabha, editor of Human Rights and Adolescence. While young children's rights have received considerable attention and have accordingly advanced over the last two decades, adolescent rights have been neglected, resulting in a serious rights lacuna. This manifests itself in pervasive gender-based violence, widespread youth disaffection and unemployment, concerning levels of self-abuse, violence and antisocial engagement, and serious mental and physical health deficits. Human Rights and Adolescence presents a multifaceted inquiry into the global circumstances of adolescents, focused on the human rights challenges and socioeconomic obstacles young adults face.

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Penn Press: It has been stated that there are no other books that really cover this topic. Why is it that this topic has not been more widely explored?

Jacqueline Bhabha: Two main reasons: One—We have only recently learned from neuroscientific research that brain development continues well into adolescence, so there are particularities about adolescent behavior that we did not understand until recently. Two—The consensus about the need for protection and the vulnerability of young children does not exist for adolescents. As a society we have a much more ambivalent reaction to adolescents—torn between admiration and fear. So relatively little work on the field as a whole has been conducted, and we have very little good data to rely on.

What are the consequences of ignoring adolescent rights?

We have not collected good data on the topic. We don’t have a consensus definition of the term. We don’t have good guidelines or policies to assist practitioners navigating the very complex terrain that adolescent work entails.

How do adolescent rights differ from children’s rights? Why do these differences matter?

The international definition of childhood covers people up to age 18, so it includes many adolescents. There is therefore not a sharp dichotomy. But adolescence raises complex questions about rights that are not central to early childhood. Examples include:

  • Sexual and reproductive rights: What should the relationship between adolescent and parental views and rights be? Who should decide where there is a conflict?
  • Juvenile offending: Should adolescents be treated differently from adults when they are convicted of serious offences? There is no dispute that younger children should be, but what about adolescents?
  • Balance between protection and agency: How decisive should an adolescent’s opinions be in determining his or her rights when guardians or professional caretakers disagree with them about what is in their best interests?

Are there biases/normative conceptions on this topic that the book seeks to overcome?

The book challenges the notion that adolescence always represents a time of discovery, of self-exploration, of independence, excitement, and creativity. It shows that for a majority of the world’s adolescents, the luxury of this rights-enhancing and identity-expanding adolescent experience is elusive. Instead, a majority must assume adult responsibilities very early; are deprived of the opportunity to study, to explore alternative futures free of family responsibilities. Early marriage and pregnancy, the obligation to earn, and the imperative to seek a rights-respecting future propel many adolescents into adult responsibilities as soon as they emerge from childhood.

Has the subject of adolescent rights always been a concern? And if not, why is it more so now?

The subject has recently emerged as a concern because of the growing visibility of adolescent agency—the Arab spring, migration, jihadi recruitment, gang warfare, teen pregnancy.

What structures exist for the support of adolescent rights, particularly since adolescents are not enfranchised?

Very few—many countries lack a coherent definition of adolescence and therefore a coherent state structure where responsibility for adolescent protection is allocated. The right to secondary and tertiary education is poorly developed, access to reproductive rights is very limited, enforcement of bans on child marriage and child labor is weak, and anti-trafficking measures are inadequate. In short, the structures of support are seriously deficient.

What challenges do adolescents face that require a reevaluation of their rights status?

The school-to-work challenge, home-to-community challenge, and puberty challenge.

How do issues of adolescent rights vary from country to country/based on culture?

There are commonalities and differences—the book explores this at great length with an unusually broad scope of country specific expertise.

Are issues of adolescent rights complicated by issues of gender as well?

Of course—that is a major theme of the book. Issues of sexuality and sexual orientation complicate things, too, and disability.

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Jacqueline Bhabha is Director of Research at the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights, Harvard School of Public Health.

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