​The Vicious Cycle Of Abused Boys In Afghanistan

Photo: Courtesy of Hagar International.
Nearly 50 boys have gone through Hagar International's recovery program since its inception.
As she trained local police and officials in Afghanistan on human-trafficking issues, Sara Shinkfield began to notice a troubling, common thread in the stories she heard from the field.

They involved young boys.

Shinkfield, a 38-year-old Nebraska native, and her colleagues at Hagar International, a nonprofit that supports female and child victims of trafficking and violence, had long been aware that sex abuse against boys was a problem in the war-torn country.

But they didn't know how bad it had become. So in 2012, they embarked on what they called an unprecedented study of the issue. The findings of the report, published in 2013, were even more shocking and dire than they had anticipated.

"Boys are, we believe, the most trafficked group in Afghanistan," Shinkfield, who has lived in Afghanistan for nearly nine years, said. "It was bigger than we thought when we started, which, in a way, was heartbreaking."

The issue made headlines — and sparked outrage — this week when The New York Times published a report alleging that U.S. soldiers had been instructed not to intervene, even in cases where the abusers were allies in the Afghan forces. The Pentagon responded by calling the abuse "abhorrent" and asserting that there is no official policy intended to keep soldiers from speaking up about abuse.

But a lack of local or international intervention to curb abuse hasn't been the only failure. Support network or services for the young victims were virtually nonexistent, Hagar's research found. The organization has a team of more than 60 people working in Afghanistan.

"We couldn’t find anybody doing anything that was responding to these male child survivors," Shinkfield said.

To fill that gap, Hagar's team has partnered with groups including the Afghanistan International Human Rights Commission, the Child Protection Action Network, and the ministries of Labour and Social Affairs, Interior, and Justice, to launch an effort aimed at protecting and supporting boys rescued from abuse. At least 47 boys have been helped so far through the Forgotten No More program, she said, many of whom have been successfully and safely reunited with family.

Shinkfield, country director for Hagar Afghanistan, spoke with Refinery29 this week about the crisis and what she and her colleagues are doing to help.

Once boys have recovered, we always believe in reintegration with family of origin, if it's safe. It’s very key.

Sara Shinkfield, Hagar International
Both the New York Times report and Hagar’s research explore the problem of bacha bazi, or "dancing boys." Can you tell us more about this form of abuse, its origins and how widespread it is?
"It has been around for a long, long time in Afghanistan. It’s endemic and it is engrained in society, this harmful, traditional practice. The tea boys, boys who provide the tea and work for the man who owns them, would be kind of groomed or taught how to entertain. Mainly, that means dancing as far as entertainment goes, and then the sexual exploitation, which follows the dancing, typically. In our research, we did find that boys who have been brought up as bacha bazi boys, many will sort of graduate out of being the boy and then be encouraged by his owner to take a boy. So it’s this cycle that’s perpetuated.

"Men who have power can grow that by the number of boys that they have and their appearance, if they’re a beautiful boy. Of the boys that we interviewed in our research who had experienced sexual abuse, 50 percent of them were related to bacha bazi. If anyone’s going to be arrested in this whole scenario, the boys are more likely to be arrested than their recruiters or their traffickers.

"This makes sense when you realize that a number of their recruiters or traffickers are the police themselves, or their commanders, as the article highlighted. We’ve had a number of cases where we tried to intervene and we tried to redirect [the arrest and detention of boys] and instead get them care and recovery response, but that to date has been extremely difficult. In fact, we haven’t been successful in one intervention thus far. There’s a lot of power at play."
Photo: Courtesy of Hagar International.
Families are sometimes told their boys will be brought to a city to receive an education. Instead, they are forced into servitude and abused.
Who are the most vulnerable boys in Afghanistan?
"Broadly speaking, I would say we definitely know the hot spots. We have a number of clients coming from certain provinces. One thing that has surprised me is the age of these boys is much younger than I anticipated. We had thought we had been responding to survivors, the majority we thought would be between 12 and 16 or 12 and 18, but what we’re seeing is the majority are between seven and 12, and that’s just heartbreaking.

"It shouldn’t happen to any boy, but the younger they are, the more disturbing it is. I wouldn’t say they’re the poorest of the poor, but certainly they’re probably not [from] wealthy families. [The parents] would have been coerced and lied to, [told] that the boys [will] be taken to the city and get education. Of course, that wouldn’t be the end of their journey, but that’s what families are being told."

How does your program help boys in this situation?
"If a boy is in need or is rescued or is found…[he] would be brought up to our center. It is set up to be as homelike and family-like as possible. We have a house mother and a house father, and they’re there day and night with the boys. Once the boy arrives and is settling in, he would have an assessment so he could access counseling at the various stages. And then [there is] access immediately to health care — a lot of times, that is the first need that the boys have.

"We provide legal aid. If boys would like to access justice and go after the perpetrator, we are there and ready to support them in that. And, of course, access to education [happens] immediately. We’ve had a number of boys whose cases are rather sensitive, and people would be looking for them and they’d be in a lot of danger, so we’ve had to respond differently to those boys to try to provide greater safety to them.

"But we don’t believe in a center that is closed. We try to imitate as close as possible what it will be like when they reintegrate. Engaging in community — building social capital and being part of that community around you — is really important. And it’s important for the healing process, as well. Once boys have recovered, we always believe in reintegration with family of origin, if it's safe. It’s very key.

How does the experience of boys who are victims of trafficking and sex abuse — and your approach to supporting them — differ from that of girls and women?
"Education plays a massive [role in] recovery for boys. We’ve seen it be more effective than with women and girls. I don’t know why that is, but that is what I’ve seen. I would say that probably boys have a better chance of shaking the stigma that comes along with the exploitation and the trafficking journey than women and girls in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan in particular, women and girls will find it very, very difficult to escape that stigma, whereas with boys, we have seen after some time [they] are welcomed back into their family and even in the broader community easier."

Boys are, we believe, the most trafficked group in Afghanistan.

Sara Shinkfield, Hagar International
Is there a story that sticks in your mind of a particularly heartbreaking case that’s representative of the problem?
"There’s oftentimes a relative involved in the exploitation and the journey in getting that boy to the exploited activity. And in this one particular case, it was a relative who was leading a bit of a ring of bringing boys to Kabul. They were kept in an orphanage-like environment. It just so happened that they had access to education, and a teacher noticed one boy in particular having a number of bruises all the time and being very withdrawn, so she raised the issue with a friend who had some power and started to look into it.

"The boy was rescued and was brought to us at Hagar. [He] had experienced extreme abuse, sexual and physical. And we began the walking journey with him. He was 8, [and was] back to recovery first physically, and then, of course, [we were] starting to help him to make sense of the trauma that he’d endured. The relative was very, very powerful and connected and certainly was not happy that the boy was not with him or that he was in a safehome, so that was a very long, ongoing legal case in which I personally was threatened.

"In the end, after a long fight, we were able to protect the boy not only from the trafficker, but we were also able to protect him through the legal system. The end of that story is that this little guy, we call him Mr. Resilience, he had an incredible amount of resilience…he bounced back, and he began to recover with love and care. We were able to engage with his family and other relatives that were safe, and began to work with them on a reintegration plan. He reintegrated with an extended relative, and he is living with them now and he is safe. He had never been to school when he came to us, except the classes he was attending at the beginning, and so he didn’t know colors and he didn’t know how to count, but he’s just taken first place in his class. So we’re pretty proud of him."

At the time of your 2013 report, only three cases had been prosecuted under the [anti-child abuse and trafficking] law in Afghanistan that was signed in 2008. Have you seen a change on this front in actual prosecutions, or has that also been slow going?

"It’s very much a challenge. The law enforcement who would be in a position to investigate and pull the cases together to actually get a prosecution lack training and understanding. You just layer corruption on top of it, and it’s a disaster. To my knowledge, there have been three more [prosecutions] in the last couple of years. We’re looking at responding to that by looking for funding to try to bring in expert trainers to help the law enforcement to try to investigate and build cases against the perpetrators and try to further prosecutions. If they had greater skills and training, there would be those with the will, I think."
Photo: Courtesy of Hagar International.
Male survivors of child sex abuse experience safety, go to school, and build friendships while staying at Hagar's recovery center.
The New York Times report alleges that the U.S. military is essentially turning a blind eye and instructing soldiers to turn a blind eye or not get involved. Do you think there’s a more proactive policy or approach the U.S. could take to help on this issue?
"I personally have not observed it or heard of it, with regard to the U.S. military being told not to get involved. The fact that powerful observers on both sides of the armed conflict in Afghanistan — the Afghan police, Afghan National Army, as well as the Taliban and other insurgency groups — are perpetrators on both sides, I definitely know that is true.

"I would implore [the U.S.] to respond, to get involved. I know that it must be politically complicated and there’s probably so many complexities that I couldn't understand, and I understand that. But they’re in a position…to stop the suffering of children, the abuse of children that is destroying these children’s lives and gets perpetuated."

What can Refinery29 readers do to help?

"There’s this partnership with the government, and they’re offering help and support. Without funding to continue to provide these services, we’re at an impasse. Giving funds will help. It will make a serious impact. It will help a boy recover from this trauma. I think getting educated on this issue is another way to get involved. There’s so much about this that people don’t know. It’s a hard topic to talk about, to be honest. But I think if people are educating themselves and telling a friend, maybe the issue won’t be overlooked and forgotten."

To donate to Hagar International’s efforts, or learn more about the organization’s work and other volunteer opportunities, visit this link.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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