South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

Bisika Thapa

The rape of little Hassan by the novel’s chief bad guy—Assef—in Khaled Hosseini’s epic The Kite Runner is the most disturbing image of a boy’s rape by another,  older male that I can(not) think of.  But as the cliché goes, reality is stranger than fiction. Last week, I read Save the Children’s news and Child Workers in Nepal Concerned Centre’s (CWIN) report published in the Post of the pervasiveness of non-consensual and forced sex among Kathmandu’s male street children (May 5, Page 1). Those that resemble Assef in 46 percent of these cases were their own peers, with the remaining 54 percent  cited as foreign nationals, police personnel, third gender persons, people who use drugs, and women.

The peculiarity of it all—both the fiction and the facts—is not that sex is being forced upon a child. The peculiarity is that the rape of boys—the most untraditional victims/survivors of such an act—functions as the turning point in the novel and, I daresay, in the way people think of child rape in Nepal. I’m actually tempted to say South Asia and not just Nepal because sexual abuse of male street children as a form of child rape is rampant in the region.

Yet, rarely does the issue see the light of day and settle onto the public’s radar. Some efforts are being made to uncover this phenomenon. For instance, in Faisalabad, Pakistan, at a meeting in 2008 to disseminate the preliminary findings of the country’s national Integrated Bio-Behavioral Surveillance (IBBS), the prevalence of both consensual and forced sex among street boys came to the limelight. In another instance, a 2009 report on the rapid assessment of male vulnerabilities to HIV and sexual exploitation in Afghanistan, commissioned by the country’s National AIDS Control Program (NACP) and UNICEF laid bare the existence of adolescent male sexual exploitation (and some instances of abuse) by peers and older males in the respective communities.

Around 30 percent of the adolescents were street boys. While the numbers are high and efforts being made, many such efforts are often confined, sadly, to the world of technical expertise. They hardly ever make their way to the layman’s world. The mass should be aware of the findings that technical efforts bring to light, and be discussed in plain, simple terms such that these realities register in the minds of the majority. The news of the report from Nepal last week did great service to raise awareness among Nepalis on thinking differently about child sexual abuse and particularly, that the victim/survivor of rape is not necessarily always female.

In that connection, I want to bring to the fore a discussion I had with my colleague Rabeya on the streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh. She told me how street boys sleeping outside local shops are often forced to have sex with the shop-keepers who pull them inside in the dead of night. She had interviewed several of them for her research and done focus group sessions with adult males who had suffered from sexual abuse as street children. Many of the boys complained of painful abscesses and watery pus in their rectal area and showed signs of various Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs).

But most of all, it was their days of silence that spoke the horror of their experiences. This silence was undoubtedly the hardest to break. “When you think of a rape victim, you think of a woman or a girl. People still can’t think that men or boys can be raped. That’s what makes it so difficult and strange to talk about. These boys can’t even complain, and even if they could—to whom?  Who would believe them?” Rabeya’s questions are legitimate, especially in the absence of clear laws that protect rape victims/survivors and dispense the appropriate action against perpetrators. But ultimately, it is only those who ask the questions that find the answers. Rabeya, a development professional, is also studying law and hopes to bring justice to strange places where such strange, yet devastating atrocities take place all too often.

Thapa is a developmental psychologist and an HIV/AIDS professional