The South Asia Channel

Afghanistan’s Enslaved Children

Afghans are the only ones who can save their children from sexual enslavement.

Afghan shoe-shine boy Sameiullah (R), 11, polishes a customer's shoes at the Karta-e-Sakhi cemetery in Kabul on February 10, 2015. Sameiullah, the second son of his eight-member family, is the sole bread-winner who polishes shoes of customers from dawn to dusk in western Kabul, making roughly 4 USD daily. Poverty and insecurity has forced thousands of children into child labour in Afghanistan. Children aged five to fifteen instead of attending schools work on the streets and are often the sole bread-winners of their families. AFP PHOTO / SHAH MARAI        (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)
Afghan shoe-shine boy Sameiullah (R), 11, polishes a customer's shoes at the Karta-e-Sakhi cemetery in Kabul on February 10, 2015. Sameiullah, the second son of his eight-member family, is the sole bread-winner who polishes shoes of customers from dawn to dusk in western Kabul, making roughly 4 USD daily. Poverty and insecurity has forced thousands of children into child labour in Afghanistan. Children aged five to fifteen instead of attending schools work on the streets and are often the sole bread-winners of their families. AFP PHOTO / SHAH MARAI (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)

On Sept. 20, the New York Times reported the story of U.S. soldiers ignoring the sexual abuse of young boys in Afghanistan, bringing to light yet another tale of abuse in Afghanistan that rarely makes the front pages. This is the story of the sexual slavery of Afghan boys.

Throughout the country, almost 20 percent of children are expected to earn income, often in the kind of environment in which malnutrition, forced marriages, and sexual abuse occur regularly. In Kabul alone, 50,000 children are working on the streets polishing shoes, in shops, and begging. Inevitably, a large number of these children, mostly boys, end up working for the rich and powerful who often abuse them sexually and mentally.

The sexual abuse of boys occurring on U.S. military bases is a reflection of great failure on the United States government — the self-claimed icon of human rights in Afghanistan — and of Afghan government. Both countries are signatories to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25 of which specifically articulates that children are entitled to special care and assistance. With these legal and policy duties, why did U.S. soldiers look the other way when Afghan children needed special care and assistance?

Except for Somalia, the United States is the only country in the world that has not yet ratified the Convention on the Rights of Child. While the U.S. government might not want to join the international community in legally protecting the rights of the children, Afghanistan is party to this convention and has the absolute responsibility to adhere to it.

The story of sexual abuse of young boys on U.S. military bases raises one fundamental question: Who should protect the children of Afghanistan? There are three stakeholders responsible for providing such protection: (1) the Afghan government; (2) the international community; and (3) the Afghan national public.

The first stakeholder, the Afghan government, has time and again demonstrated major failures in providing adequate protection for its children. The government is weak and preoccupied with other issues so that focus is rarely on the safety of children. American soldiers reported the sexual abuse that was committed by members of the Afghan security apparatus. Those who would be the ones to exercise discipline over the perpetrators are often the ones who offend. Powerful commanders in the Afghan military and police themselves are often the ones sexually abusing the young boys. This leaves no hope for the Afghan government’s security and law enforcement agencies to hold accountable the abusers and seek justice for the abused.

The second stakeholder, the international community, can only invest in the symptoms and not root of the problem. The efforts of numerous international organizations like Save the Children and UNICEF are only able to superficially and symbolically discuss, and rarely resolve, the issues facing Afghan children. Despite the international community spending billions of dollars in aid money, Afghan children, in large numbers, are still working under gruesome conditions and are forced into sexual slavery daily. While the work of international organizations provides a normative voice to the victims of human rights, particularly kids, it is by no means sufficient to meaningfully transition these victims from an abusive environment into the relative safety that they desperately need. Based on the past record and the reality on the ground, any hope that international organizations have to save the Afghan children is flawed and uncalculated.

The U.S. government will not be the savior of the Afghan kids. Just because the slain Lance Corporal Gregory Buckley, Jr. told his father what was happening to the young Afghan boys on his base in Afghanistan, or just because Dan Quinn, a former Special Forces captain, beat up an American-backed militia commander for keeping a boy chained to the bed as a sex slave, as the New York Times reports, the problems faced by these young and vulnerable Afghan boys will not be fixed. It is particularly hopeless for the United States to provide help for these kids as it actively punishes and discharges anyone like Captain Quinn, who acted against such violations. Essentially, the U.S. military has declared its position as neutral on these violations saying: “Generally, allegations of child sexual abuse by Afghan military or police personnel would be a matter of domestic Afghan criminal law.”

The last stakeholder, the members of the Afghan national public, might be the only party capable of living up to their moral task of protecting their own children. There are some observers, particularly in the West, who conclude that stopping the sexual abuse of young boys under the tradition of bacha bazi (boy play) in Afghanistan is not possible. These observers are not critically engaged with the historical, socioeconomic, and geopolitical make-up of the Afghan society. Afghans need no one to tell them that bacha bazi, a non-consensual sexual act between two males, one often a child and the other often an old and a rich man, is not only against Afghan religious and cultural values, it also represents a tradition only practiced by members of a repressive social system and of a primitive society.

Afghans understand that sexual abuse of their boys is nothing more than the tragic consequence of a four-decade long war in their country — a war whose flames have no amnesty for the Afghan children. It is for this reason that all sectors of the public, including the growing number of civil society organizations, academic institution, businesses, non-governmental organizations, and in particular, scholars, must take it upon themselves to protect the innocent children, whether they are on the streets or on the military bases. Afghans can either stand idly by on this issue thereby accepting the sexual slavery of their children or raise the sword of justice and be the saviors of their children.

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

Nabi Sahak is a Rotary peace scholar at the University of Queensland's School of Political Science and International Studies and worked as a reporter for BBC Radio in Afghanistan.

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