KANDAHAR, 6 June 2007 (IRIN) - Abdul Kabir, not his real name, left his home in Afghanistan's southern Urozgan province to work for a relative and attend school in neighbouring Kandahar province.
Six months later, the 12-year-old found himself in a juvenile prison after being sexually abused.
"After my relative declined to give me a job at his shop, I went to a labour market where two men hired me for construction work for 50 Afghani (US $1) a day. They took me into an empty house where they both forcefully had sex with me," Abdul said, recalling in vivid detail his confinement for three months before managing to get away.
But Abdul's nightmare didn't end there. A driver who promised to take him back to Urozgan for free also abused him, he said. Eventually, Abdul Kabir was able to find his way back to the poppy field he once worked in as a day labourer.
There, Abdul Kabir said another young man, also working in the poppy field, tried to rape him. "But I stabbed him in the stomach," Abdul Kabir said - a move that prompted locals to turn him over to the police.
According to Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), there are currently 14 child sex abuse cases in Kandahar province alone, five of which have been referred to the police for investigation.
However, specialists say this is just the tip of the iceberg, with the vast majority of cases going unreported.
"No doubt there are numerous other cases which, due to a variety of social restrictions, go unreported," Shamsuddin Tanwir, AIHRC's director in Kandahar, said.
Only 29 percent of child sexual abuse cases are actually registered, a joint AIHRC and Save the Children-Sweden report on child sexual abuse revealed.
One 14-year-old boy in western Herat province said he had been raped but did not come forward out of fear the police would put him in jail instead.
A health worker in Kandahar's main hospital told IRIN that three to five sexually abused children receive medical treatment every month.
"Although victims can receive treatment for their physical injuries, the psychological scars will be with them for a long period of time," Dr Ghulam Mohammad Sahar said.
And while more than 100 medical staff at two hospitals in Kandahar city, the provincial capital, have been trained to receive and treat children suffering from sexual abuse, clearly more needs to be done.
Lack of penal codes
During the time that the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, illegal sex, including sex with children, brought harsh penalties to the perpetrators, even death.
In the aftermath of the collapse of the Taliban regime in late 2001, Afghanistan reintroduced its old civil and penal laws - both of which lack, however, a specific article on the sexual exploitation of minors.
Article 427 of Afghanistan's penal code determines "long term" imprisonment for adultery. Those who sexually abuse children are currently jailed and sentenced according to this article, which can bring a jail sentence of six to 10 years.
But according to AIHRC's Tanwir, only 24.3 percent of abusers, according to victims' accounts, are actually incarcerated, prompting the rights group to call upon the government to enact a law on child sexual abuse and exploitation and to vigorously implement it.
That will remain difficult, however, given the stigma and disgrace associated with child sex abuse - preventing many people from even speaking openly about it.
"I wouldn't dare tell my parents what happened to me out of fear that they would kill me," one 15-year-old rape victim in the capital, Kabul, told IRIN.
Many Afghan parents consider any discussion about sex with their children as indecent and rude even though many cases of children being sexually abused happen within households, the United Nations children's agency (UNICEF) found.
"Forty percent of child abuse victims experience sexual abuse at home, where they should be safe," Noriko Izumi, a children's protection offer for UNICEF in Kabul, said.
Ignorance, insecurity and poverty
UNICEF and some NGOs have been pioneering ways to broaden public awareness of child sexual abuse by training school teachers, disseminating educational audio and video programmes, and establishing and strengthening child protection networks.
"If parents teach their children how to behave with elders outside home and avoid proximity to strangers, to some extent, that would help reduce unwanted incidents," Babrak Zadran, an AIHRC staff member in Kabul, recommended.
Child sexual abuse has multifaceted causes, one being pervasive poverty, experts say.
According to AIHRC, over 46 percent of sexually abused children live in abject poverty, making them particularly vulnerable to various forms of exploitation.
Children who work in hotels, shops and other public places not only face the risk of sexual abuse, they also face physical and mental violence, the country's rights watchdog found.
According to Shukria Barakzai, an Afghan human rights activist and MP, for the past 25 years the majority of the country has suffered perpetual war and violence that has culminated not only in the physical destruction of the country, but has also brought about an obscurantist culture of war with very little respect for human rights.
"Given the political and security situation in the country, particularly in the south, I think the general protection issue concerning children is getting more difficult," UNICEF's Izumi concluded.