Updated 16 July 2013, 17:57 AEST
Afghan boys are bought and sold by wealthy men in the old tradition of 'bacha bazi' - or boy's play - and used as slaves, while girls are sold, often by their families, for prostitution.
Dr Bronywn Graham is country director for Hagar Afghanistan, an agency that helps survivors of such human rights abuses to rebuild their lives.
Dr Graham has just ended an eleven-year posting in Kabul, where she's been involved in research on the trafficking of Afghan boys.
Presenter: Richard Ewart
Speaker: Dr Bronwyn Graham, country director for Hagar Afghanistan
GRAHAM: Hagar International has worked for 20 years starting in Cambodia. We also have project officers in Vietnam and Afghanistan. Hagar Afghanistan started in 2008.
EWART: So what led you to what turned out to be an 11 year posting in Kabul?
GRAHAM: My family and I decided that we wanted to help people who were less fortunate than ourselves and we headed out originally to Pakistan as a young married couple without kids and then were gradually led to Afghanistan where the needs are great and we ended up staying ten years.
EWART: So over that period how has this particular problem of trafficking developed? Has it got worse?
GRAHAM: It's very hard to say whether the problem's getting better or worse in Afghanistan due to the fact that there's no research, which is why Hagar Afghanistan has done some research into the trafficking of boys. But again because victims are very rarely recognised, it's very hard to put real hard numbers on these things. The impressions are that it is getting worse but it is hard to say for sure.
EWART: And in terms of how it happens and indeed how it's allowed to happen, often the cultural defence is put forward. Is that the case in Afghanistan?
GRAHAM: I think that's more the case for the trafficking of girls, I think it's less so for boys. I think the practice of bacha bazi is fairly widespread but everybody acknowledges that it happens, but very few people are willing to say it happens close to them or in their neighbourhoods or in their communities.
EWART: I described it in the introduction as the old tradition of bacha bazi, is that the right way of describing this?
GRAHAM: Yes it is a longstanding practice, because the culture does segregate men and women quite strictly boys are bought and sold to dance at social functions for men and then often sexually abused.
EWART: And in terms of what happens to them there after, how do they get out of a life like that? Is there an end to it, will they be released by whoever holds them or do they literally escape?
GRAHAM: No, it depends what sort of trafficking they have suffered from. There are also commanders and things who have a boy as a sexual object, and those boys will usually move into his fighting forces when they become too old to be a boy anymore. When you talk to Afghans about the sexual abuse of boys or about homosexuality, they talk about men having boys rather than men sleeping with other men. So it is sort of age determined and most of them do eventually grow out of being desirable.
EWART: So for any boy who goes through that kind of experience if they manage to get out of it in whatever way that they do, an organisation like yours steps in to try to help them rebuild their lives, where on earth do you start because the trauma that they've gone through is immeasurable surely?
GRAHAM: Yes it is. We do have trained counsellors and social workers who we end up doing a lot of training ourselves because the level of general education in Afghanistan is low. But we do intensive counselling with children who've suffered from trauma. And then we try to provide them some way to sustain themselves in the future. So if they're young, education; if they're older, vocational training and skill development.
EWART: In terms of girls and young women in Afghanistan that are also abused, particularly those who end up being forced into prostitution essentially, what's the pattern there? Again how do they break free?
GRAHAM: More and more women are seeking help through Afghan independent human rights commission, and they will refer them to agencies like Hagar or Hagar. And it is a problem that there are not a lot of ways of Afghan women sustaining themselves independently, because there are not many women in the workforce, and most of the women who come to us are totally uneducated. So it is a long pathway.
EWART: What then is the official view of the situation and the work that an organisation like yours is doing? Is there any groundswell in officialdom to do something about this?
GRAHAM: There has been a lot of progress in the last ten years, as far as the government's attitude towards women's empowerment there is still a long way to go.
EWART: And how fearful are you that things could go backwards once the US military pulls out next year?
GRAHAM: I think everyone is concerned about the future, I think that's realistic. I also think there's a lot of strong Afghan middle class women who are wanting to stand up for women's rights and I think that that's very positive.
EWART: But when you see as we have done today about the case of three people who were convicted of torturing a child bride have now been released from prison early, I mean what kind of signal does that send out?
GRAHAM: Yeah I must say that is extremely disappointing and the people who are close to her know how disappointing it is for her as an individual as well. But even on a political sense it is extremely disappointing and I think it does show a certain lack of coordination between various courts and things as well.
EWART: Does it reflect in any sense what people in Afghanistan might consider to be cultural norms or is this if you like the result of red tape really?
GRAHAM: I think there's a big mixture. I think there are a lot of cultural norms that need challenging. I also think that this is a case of somewhat of red tape and poor communication between departments. Hagar does do capacity building with the government officials, especially around trafficking issues.
EWART: Just one other point I'd like to raise with you, there are many more, but from a personal point of view as you say you went out there as a young married couple, you've come back as a family, what sort of experience has it been for you and your young family, quite extraordinary I would have thought for your children?
GRAHAM: Yes, my daughter's now 11, which is part of our reason for returning home, and my son is 9, and I think they have had a very unique childhood. I think they have a much better understanding of the world and how many of the issues that are displayed in the media as being fairly black and white are actually very grey. And that there are good people on both sides of most conflicts but who have different ideologies. I think their world view is very, very different to the average Australian or New Zealand child and I see that as a positive.
EWART: And whether this is your intention or not do you believe that your children will be inspired to perhaps carry on and do similar work in adulthood?
GRAHAM: I have no idea, I would hope so, I would hope that they would want to help people less fortunate than themselves and they've certainly seen real poverty in a way that most kids haven't, but that's up to them.