Afghan children who are sexually abused are frequently "revictimised" by the state when they are jailed for committing the "moral crime" of being raped.
Cultural, as well as legislative changes needed to help abused children
In Afghanistan, things are turned upside down, and being attacked by a sexual predator can get a child in trouble with the law.
When children in the war-torn country are sexually abused, far from providing the kind of assistance that would be taken for granted in other parts of the world, the authorities will more than likely throw them in jail, a practice that perpetuates this widespread social problem by deterring victims from seeking justice, giving offenders a strong sense of impunity.
Victims, many of them street children, are, as Unicef defines it, "systemically revictimised" by the state when they are prosecuted for committing "moral crimes", a blanket term for all forms of sex between unmarried individuals, consensual or otherwise, while the adults who have assaulted them often go unpunished.
Children as young as seven are detained under cramped and squalid conditions without adequate access to proper food and healthcare, and often face further physical abuse at the hands of guards and other prison employees.
A recent case involving a 13-year-old boy who was sentenced to a year in jail for having sex with men in a park in Herat Province prompted the New York-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) to call for serious reforms.
"When a man has sex with a 13-year-old child, the child is a victim of rape, not a criminal offender," said Brad Adams, HRW's Asia director. "The Afghan government should never have victimised the boy."
A 15-year-old orphan who is currently imprisoned in a children's correction centre in Kabul told the Institute for War & Peace Reporting that his nightmare began when he offered to help a man carry his groceries: "I went to help him, and I took one of the bags and carried it to his home. The man invited me to come inside for lunch since I'd helped him, but when I entered the room, he attacked me sexually. I jumped out of the window to escape, but he came outside and shouted out that I was a thief. The local police arrested me for robbery. They wouldn't listen to me … I've been in prison for seven months, and I don't know what I've done wrong."
Some victims who wind up in detention have been involved in bacha bazi (boy play), a custom in which young boys, who are usually orphans or estranged from their families, dress up in feminine costumes and dance at male-only parties. It is not uncommon for these young boys to be assaulted at such sessions.
"The Afghan government needs to take urgent steps to protect children from sexual assault, including boys who are abused through the practice of bacha bazi," said Adams. "Treating boys who have been raped as criminals undermines all government efforts to protect children from abuse."
But it isn't just the police victims have to fear in this highly conservative country, where sex is regarded as a taboo topic - there is also one's own family. As a 15-year-old rape victim told IRIN, the UN humanitarian news and analysis service: "I wouldn't dare tell my parents what happened to me out of fear that they would kill me."
In an effort to deter offenders, HRW has called on the Afghan government to establish a legal age of sexual consent and amend a 2009 law banning violence against women, including rape, to include men and boys.
This would be a good start. But given the increasing levels of violence against women and girls across the country four years after the law was passed, legislative action is unlikely to improve the situation if there is not a significant shift in cultural attitudes and the political will to take the necessary enforcement measures.
* Paul Muir