By Murray Brewster
OTTAWA — The trafficking and sexual exploitation of children in Afghanistan is a growing concern, Canada's Foreign Affairs Department was told in a confidential human-rights report prepared by senior officials.
The illegal marriage of underage girls and the sexual abuse of young boys is commonplace, warned the Afghanistan Human Rights Report obtained by The Canadian Press under access-to-information laws.
"Sexual violence is commonly reported but remains difficult to verify," said the partially censored review, written last summer.
RAWA: 12-year-old Anisa was gang-raped by five warlords in Sar Pul province, northern Afghanistan, but she says the rapists were arrested but soon they were released without being prosecuted.
The red flag was penned around the same time Canadian military police began investigating public complaints that soldiers and their commanders had turned a blind eye to the rape of young boys by Afghan troops and police at a forward operating base. The military's National Investigative Unit has been unable to verify the allegations.
A second, procedural investigation by the Canadian military continues and is expected to table its findings within weeks.
The Foreign Affairs analysis cited a Geneva-based human-rights group in its warning about children."According to the International Organization for Migration, trafficking in children is a problem in Afghanistan and the majority of the children trafficked are boys who are trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation and forced labour," said the report.
The NDP foreign affairs critic, Paul Dewar, said the assessment is disturbing, especially in light of the abuse allegations, which he claimed the Canadian military isn't eager to substantiate.
"The Afghans know this is going on; they're not stupid," Dewar said. "It's a case of 'see no evil; hear no evil; speak no evil' and therefore there's no evil.
"There have been many claims that abuse is going on, but I suppose if you don't acknowledge there's actually problems, then there are no problems."The treatment of young girls is just as abysmal.Figures indicated 57 per cent of Afghan marriages involved girls under the legal age of 16. Many of those unions are arranged marriages, where the girls are sometimes used to pay off family debts and those who disobey become the victims of so-called honour killings.
The report tried to cast a hopeful note by recognizing that the Afghan practice of "baad" had begun to decline. "The use of women as compensation in dispute resolution, has decreased due to awareness campaigns by the (Afghan) government and human rights organizations."
A Foreign Affairs official said Ottawa has invested a lot of time and money to improve the lives of Afghan children, pointing to a series of initiatives, including the campaign to eradicate polio.
"Canada's support for children and youth in Afghanistan is demonstrated in its support for programming in education, child and maternal health, and through our commitment to improve access to basic service and provide increased economic opportunities for Kandaharis," said Laurent Morel-a-l'Huissier, in an email note.
Morel-a-l'Huissier pointed to the country's falling infant mortality rate as sign of progress and said the school construction "is a major reason why so many boys and girls are in school today, more than at any time in Afghanistan's history."
More than six million children are enrolled in classes, with roughly 35 per cent of them girls - a vast improvement from the days of the brutal Taliban regime, under which girls were barred from attending school.
But behind those cheery, often-quoted statistics is the reality that "half of all school-age children do not attend school, including the majority of school-age girls," said the human rights report.
Canada has committed to expand and repair 50 schools in Kandahar as one of its benchmarks to be accomplished by the time the Forces ends their combat mission in 2011. According to the latest progress report, five of those schools are completed with another 25 in the planning or construction stage.But officials are not eager to address the question of whether those buildings will ever be used because, as the report noted, security for the education sector remains "a concern."
The Afghan education ministry has reported that 538 schools were closed as of June 2008, including 58 per cent of the schools in Kandahar province, mostly outside the provincial capital.
In the 10 months between May 2007 and February 2008, 147 teachers and students were killed (57 in a November 2007 suicide bomb attack) and 98 schools were burned. Between March and June 2008, 14 schools were burned and 14 students killed.
Trade Minister Stockwell Day, who's in charge of the Afghanistan file, said school security is a "very high concern" and Canadian troops work with Afghans daily to ease the threats.