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Sex, love, libido: Helpline brings succor to Afghan youth

In Afghanistan’s conservative, highly gender-segregated society discussing sexual problems publicly is not just culturally frowned upon but can easily be misconstrued as a sign of perversion

By Usman Sharifi  /  AFP, KABUL

In this photograph taken on December 12, 2016, a young Afghan woman ‘Rayhana’ arrives for an appointment with a sexologist at a youth healthcare center in Kabul in December.

Photo: AFP

“I cannot do it without Viagra,” the anonymous Afghan caller whispered into the phone, wary of being overheard by his family.

The voice on the other end of the line was soothing, professional and reassuring: “Dear brother, don’t be embarrassed. Your problem is not uncommon. We’ll help you find a solution without potency pills.”

In Afghanistan’s conservative, highly gender-segregated society discussing sexual problems publicly is not just culturally frowned upon but can easily be misconstrued as a sign of perversion.

But the country’s youth have found a non-judgmental friend in a government helpline that offers advice on taboo subjects — from ways to perk up virility to erectile dysfunction and even homosexuality.

“If you seek advice from friends or family members about treating impotence, you will be labeled immoral, shameless or unmanly,” the caller, a young man in his 20s, told AFP after receiving expert advice.

“This helpline is a blessing,” he added.

Set up in 2012 with the help of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), the youth helpline is run by 10 call center consultants in Kabul — men and women trained by a professional sexologist — who field hundreds of calls a day from distressed Afghans.

The consultants also offer advice to the lovelorn and field queries on dark subjects such as depression and forced marriage, but about 70 percent of the calls are about sexual dysfunction, said the center’s director Abdullah Shahed.

“Young men call to talk about issues ranging from masturbation to premature ejaculation,” Shahed told AFP.

“And young women call to discuss contraception, broken hymens and the fear of facing their wedding night.”


Afghanistan’s growing youth population — the 9/11 generation, as it is known — is often torn between modernity and tradition, between their sexual cravings and their desire to be religious puritans.

More than 60 percent of the population is under 25, a staggering number in a country where sex education is non-existent in schools and sex counselors are culturally dismissed as a Western concept.

Marriage is often the only outlet for pent-up sexual desires, as dating or any social co-mingling of the sexes is frowned upon. But many young people cannot afford the steep bride price, a sort of reverse dowry that men pay to the girl’s family.

Sexual frustration and hormonal rage are silent but pervasive problems, with some experts linking them to the violent aggression tearing the country apart.

“Sex problems often lead to domestic abuse, second wives (polygamy) and separation,” Shahed said. “We try to reassure young men and women there is always a way out. They are not alone.”

The Afghan health ministry also set up “youth friendly” clinics in the Afghan capital last year, which offer face-to-face sessions with counselors on subjects including sex. That they are busting taboos is evident in the growing number of women visiting them.

“I was unable to talk about my problems to my mother or my sister,” 21-year-old Rayhana told AFP at one such clinic in Kabul. “But here I can talk openly.”

Among other things, the call center and clinics seek to warn young Afghans about the dangers of sex addiction, unprotected intercourse and Viagra abuse.

The little blue pill — known locally by myriad names such as “cobra,” “rocket” and even “family boosting tablet” — was unknown to many Afghans before the US invasion in late 2001 that toppled the Taliban regime.

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