KABUL -- In Afghanistan, 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.
"If you seek advice from friends or family members about impotence, you will be labelled immoral ... or unmanly," a man in his 20s told AFP after receiving advice from the helpline.
"This helpline is a blessing," he said.
Hundreds of calls daily
Set up in 2012 with the help of the UN Population Fund, the helpline is run by 10 consultants in Kabul -- professionally trained men and women trained by a professional sexologist -- who field hundreds of calls a day.
The consultants offer advice on subjects like depression and forced marriage, but about 70% of the calls concern sex, said the centre's director, Abdullah Shahed.
The Afghan Health Ministry also set up "youth friendly" clinics in Kabul last year, which offer face-to-face sessions with counsellors.
"I was unable to share my problems with my mother or my sister," Rayhana, 21, told AFP at one such clinic in Kabul. "But here I can talk openly."
Among other things, the call centre and clinics seek to warn young Afghans about the dangers of sex addiction, unprotected intercourse and drug abuse.
"We advise our callers not to turn to ... opium for their sexual problems," Shahed said. "Instead we ask them to treat their anxiety and adopt a healthy lifestyle."
In a conservative environment
Often, another forbidden subject comes up in the discussions -- homosexuality.
"Once a lesbian called and complained of depression because her partner was getting married," Shahed said, adding that his counsellors could do little except try to help the caller find ways to think about her predicament.
Still, the programme is struggling against the prevalent cultural conservatism.
When Afghan health officials recently visited Kabul University for a youth awareness campaign, a number of students accused them of promoting immorality.
"We tried to explain to the students that the programme is in accordance with sharia law and there is nothing un-Islamic about it," said Afghan Health Ministry official Sayed Alisha Alawi.
"We face an uphill task," he told AFP.