Bacha bazi: Afghanistan’s darkest secret

Bacha bazi, or ‘boy play’, is an Afghan custom that involves boys as young as nine being forced to dress as women and to dance seductively for an audience of older men. These young boys are typically owned by wealthy patrons, and are regularly the victims of sexual assault and abuse. Bacha bazi was common, particularly in rural parts of Afghanistan, for hundreds of years, before being outlawed by the Taliban government in the 1990s. The practice underwent a resurgence after the overthrow of the Taliban by US forces in 2001, and whilst efforts have been made over subsequent years to stamp out the practice, they have been largely unsuccessful due to government corruption and the reluctance of the US to involve themselves in domestic Afghan affairs. In January 2017, the Afghan government belatedly moved to criminalise bacha bazi, and is finally beginning to act to prevent abuse and protect victims, with mixed success thus far.

History of the practice

Bacha bazi has antecedents in ancient cultures throughout central Asia. However, the practice appeared in its modern form in the 19th century. It typically involves wealthy Afghans, often Pashtuns, who acquire young men or boys for the purposes of sexual entertainment and exploitation. Women are prohibited from working as dancers or entertainers in many parts of Afghanistan, and young boys are used instead. These boys, known as bacha bareesh, or ‘beardless boys’, are generally between ten and eighteen years old, and tend to come from poor backgrounds. Parents are persuaded to hand over their sons for financial reimbursement, with the promise that they will be given work and an education. Ostensibly, the young men work as dancers at private parties, however many are coerced into having sexual relationships with their masters. Boys who refuse to do so are often raped, and, in some reported cases, murdered if they manage to escape. The boys are also generally deprived of education, ruining their life prospects when they are eventually discarded after having become too old.

According to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), victims are often beaten, with injuries including internal haemorrhaging, protrusion of intestines, throat injuries, heavy internal bleeding, broken limbs, fractures, broken teeth, strangulation, and in some cases, death. Unsurprisingly, the AIHRC found that 81% of victims want to leave the so-called ‘profession’, which is reality constitutes human trafficking.

During the Afghan civil war, the Taliban made bacha bazi illegal as it was regarded as un-Islamic and incompatible with Sharia law. From 1993, until the US invasion of 2001, the practice was punishable by death.

Whilst the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan by the US improved the prospects of certain oppressed groups in Afghanistan, for example women, it actually increased the prevalence of bacha bazi. The Taliban’s harsh punishments for those accused of participating in the practice were no longer enforced due to the vacuum of power left by the war.

Although child abuse remained illegal, the practice of bacha bazi itself did not, which provided cover for sexual abuse. Government complicity in the practice also quickly became a problem. Many high-ranking officials reportedly engage in bacha bazi and are rarely prosecuted by their peers.  A 2014 report by the AIHRC assessed that most people who engage in bacha bazi paid bribes to, or had relationships with, law enforcement, prosecutors, or judges that effectively exempted them from prosecution.

Throughout the period of US occupation, US commanders also made little effort to stamp out the practice. Lance Corporal Buckley was reportedly told to “look the other way because it’s their culture”. The US armed forces had a policy of ignoring child abuse committed by allied Afghan militias in order keep them on side during the fight against the Taliban. Special forces commander Dan Quinn was relieved of his command and withdrawn from Afghanistan after he beat up an American-backed militia commander for keeping a boy chained to his bed as a sex slave.

The spokesman for American command in Afghanistan defended this policy, arguing that “allegations of child sexual abuse…would be a matter of domestic Afghan criminal law… There would be no express requirement that US military personnel in Afghanistan report it.” However incidents such as the Dan Quinn case placed new scrutiny on the policy of ordering soldiers to ignore child sexual abuse by their Afghan allies, with NGOs such as Human Right’s Watch arguing that the US government’s bankrolling of the Afghan government gives it both the responsibility and the leverage to stop the continuation of this abuse.

Recent developments

International condemnation regarding the lack of action on bacha bazi has grown in recent years. In 2014, the UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy, told the General Assembly that “laws should be passed, campaigns must be waged and perpetrators should be held accountable and punished”.

A recent report by the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) also strongly criticised Afghan government officials for active complicity in “the sexual exploitation and recruitment of children by Afghan security forces”.

However, it is generally accepted that the problem is not getting any better. Suraya Subhrang, the child rights commissioner at the AIHRC stated this year that "before, bacha bazi existed in some special areas, but now it is everywhere. It is happening in Takhar [province] and the rest of the north".

These abuses continue despite President Ashraf Ghani’s June 2016 pledge to organise “thorough investigation and immediate action” concerning bacha bazi abuse by military personnel. Ghani promised this January that bacha bazi would be criminalised, with punishments including up to seven years in jail for sexual assault and capital punishment for cases that involve more than one boy being violated. The penalties and guidelines, according to the President’s senior adviser, would be listed in an entire chapter focusing on criminalising bacha bazi in Afghanistan’s new penal code. However, this promise has yet to result in any concrete action thus far.

If it does occur, criminalisation would be a positive step, however experts argue that it would not in itself be sufficient, as the government does not have the capacity to enforce the criminalisation of the practice. Professor Jasteena Dhillon, an academic expert on Afghanistan, recently argued that reform can only come through a change in culture, and that this will necessarily involve in-person negotiations with locals, and condemnation by religious leaders.

Conclusion

Bacha bazi is an under-reported human rights problem that is causing huge, and increasing, suffering to the most vulnerable children in Afghanistan. The lack of action by the US and Afghan governments constitutes a dark stain on their record as they attempt to create a more free and safe society after the war. Whilst the rhetoric of both governments signifies an increased engagement with the problem, swift action must now follow to protect the young boys of Afghanistan from further abuse.

Jesutofunmi E. Somade is on work experience at Bright Blue, organised by the Social Mobility Foundation