A paedophile ring involved in the abuse of at least 546 boys from six schools has been discovered in Afghanistan’s Logar province.
Some of the victims of the abuse have since been murdered according to the campaigners who first discovered videos of abuse posted to a Facebook page.
Five families killed their sons after their faces were seen on videos posted to social media. Two other boys – a 13 and 15 year old – were killed last week, although the perpetrators are unknown.
Civil society organisation, The Logar Youth, Social and Civil Institution, which has been working in the region for 16 years, revealed the extent of the abuse after discovering more than 100 videos on the social media site.
The institution is investigating other high schools in the region, believing thousands more children may have been abused.
Mohammed Mussa, a lead social worker at the institution, alleges that teachers, headteachers and local authority officials are implicated in the abuse ring.
“The boys we have spoken to are between the ages of 14 to 20 and the cases were reported in relatively secure areas. That’s one of the reasons why we think that the numbers could peak significantly,” he said. “Perpetrators might coordinate because they understand that if legal action is taken against them, they work as a group rather than an isolated incident.”
One school boy, Tamim*, 17, from Logar province, said that he recorded his headteacher’s demands on his phone last year.
“He told me that he loved me and wanted to have sex with me,” Tamim said. His parents hadn’t believed him until they heard the recording.
Students said the headteacher had built a private room in the school’s library, where he molested male students after school and on weekends.
Tamim said the headteacher has been fired from his post, but is understood to now hold a position in the Ministry of Education.
A Ministry of Education spokesperson Nooria Nazhat said: “If there is a complaint about our staff, the judicial authorities are responsible to investigate it. If a teacher behaves inappropriately, the teacher is punished according to the law … Detecting crime and investigating it is not the task of the Ministry of Education. We have 220,000 teachers – we can’t check on all of their lives.”
Another student, Daud*, 18, who used to attend a different high school, said one of his teachers would fail him in class and then demand sexual services in return for a passing grade.
So far, 66 cases of abuse have been identified at his school.
“My teacher said, ‘you don’t need to study, I will pass you anyway’,” Daud told the Guardian. “Often, students from poor families were singled out because they were vulnerable,” he said.
According to Mussa, some of the teachers were reported to the police but were released shortly after and have not been charged.
“The rapists are teachers, older students, authority figures and even extended family members,” he said. He and his team have received death threats since exposing the abuse.
He added that many of the abused boys have also been threatened. “Many of the victims are blackmailed. They are forced to sell drugs or engage in illegal activities in exchange for their rape videos to not be released,” Mussa said.
“Impunity, toxic gender norms and poverty of victims play a big role in the silencing of these crimes. These boys come from the most marginalised sections of society, they don’t have a voice and very few speak up on their behalf,” said Charu Hogg, executive director of the All Survivors Project, an organisation working with male victims of sexual violence in where, she said, sexual abuse was massively underreported.
Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch, added: “There is impunity for child rape because very often the perpetrators are powerful men in the military, police, or other official institutions. Even though the practice has been criminalised, the law too often goes unenforced.”
Male sexual abuse is widespread in Afghanistan. Psychologist Lyla Schwartz, who runs mental health initiative Peace of Mind Afghanistan, said victims rarely report what happens as any attention or subsequent trial can ruin the family’s “honour”.
“Oftentimes, families blame the receivers of sexual violence instead of the perpetrators, not believing that respected authority figures would engage in such behaviour. That’s part of the reason there has been not a single prosecution for male rape this year – and few, if any even – in previous ones.”
Schwartz has now started counselling several of the boys.
“If the children aren’t being helped to deal with the traumatic experience, it can exasperate into violence, mental health disorders, PTSD or even perpetration of sexual abuse. The students are so vulnerable and they will put the blame on themselves and feel shame, even though they didn’t do anything wrong,” she explained, admitting that since the cases were so rampant and on such high levels, there isn’t capacity to help everyone.
Afghanistan’s 37-million-strong population continues to lack widespread psychological support and more than 18 years of war have left much of the country devastated, with the both the Taliban and Islamic State continuing to gain territory.
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Much of Logar – home to less than half a million people – is controlled by the Taliban, who have killed several of the sex abusers, according to the Logar Youth, Social and Civil Institution.
A further 25 families of raped boys have relocated to different provinces.
“Hundreds of others don’t have the means to do that,” explained Mussa, who has since asked the US Embassy in Kabul to help to support the boys.
Sexual violence causes deep and long-lasting psychological harm to victims, said Hogg, warning of limited numbers of staff to respond to the needs of sexual violence survivors of all genders in Afghanistan. “Stigma causes a significant barrier to seeking support,” she added.
It’s hard to say just how many boys have been abused in Afghanistan. “The practise is frowned upon, but it’s still practised widespread,” said Schwartz.
“Every class we talked to had students report forceful sexual abuse,” explained Mussa. “It happens in every province. Children’s rights are completely neglected.”
* Names have been changed.