In a few days, I will be sixteen years old. While I won’t be getting a sweet sixteen party or the keys to a brand new car, turning sixteen is still a rite of passage. The moment the clock hits twelve, I will be embraced by the expectations and responsibilities that come with being a young adult.
I could drive if I wanted to – I could hop into a car and let four wheels, gallons of gas, and my shaky hands to take me wherever I wanted to go. I could get married with my parents’ permission if I wanted to – binding my life and future to another individual. I could be tried in court like an adult. I could force my life in any direction I wanted out of either calculated decisions or sheer impulsiveness.
In my own little suburban town of America, sixteen seems like an enormous deal. I have all these opportunities to alter the course of my life forever for better or for worse. But above all – I have these freedoms, these opportunities and choices. I am lucky and enough to have a million paths where my feet could take me.
Around the world, sixteen carries more weight than opening up new doors and liberties. Sixteen means more than just upholding the responsibilities of a growing teenager. Sixteen marks the beginning of adulthood and a future dictated by milestones and traditions. For many young adults around the world, sixteen is the age that one start to follow the set-in-stone path laid out for them by cultural customs and beliefs.
In Amish country, the age sixteen is the beginning of Rumspringa, the first and final period of a person’s life in which he or she is free to break Amish traditions. For just a fraction of a lifetime, that person is free to explore the world — and then immediately return to responsibilities and conformity if he or she chooses to stay with the community.
In Pakistan, many sixteen-year-olds are already wives — 21% of Pakistani girls are married before the age of eighteen. They’re already expected to fulfill domestic duties for their husbands, bear and raise children and act as adults responsible for caring for others’ lives. As some of the millions of girls wed at sixteen, they are often denied the opportunity to pursue their own educations and dreams.
In Brazil, boys of the Satere-Mawe tribe must endure excruciating pain to be recognized an adult. The boys, who may be as young as twelve years old, must wear gloves filled with stinging bullet ants and perform ritual dances to officially attain manhood. At just sixteen, they’ve already faced agonizing pain and the expectations of growing up.
In eastern Africa, some boys and girls of the Maasai people must undergo traditional practices of circumcision to be considered as adults. From the ages of fourteen to sixteen, boys often begin an initiation process called Enkipaata. They travel across their land and perform rituals for months for the Enkipaata ceremony and then move onto the Emuratare ceremony for circumcision. Boys then are considered to be warriors, and females are regarded as adults. At the tender age of sixteen, they’re regarded as adults after enduring the pains of tradition.
In many cultures, reaching the age of sixteen is reaching the phase of adulthood and completing a crucial stage of life. I’m afraid to turn sixteen and bear the responsibilities and choices that come with being a young adult. But at the same time, I’m joining a class of remarkably mature, brave individuals, some of whom have been pushed to grow up at such a young age. Their lives as mere teenagers have been irrevocably changed, but their courage and strength persist. At the age of sixteen, I hope to have as much as a fraction of the resilience that they possess.