*Note: The above picture is merely illustrative; none of the children pictured were victims of Bacha Bazi.
Background of Bacha Bazi
Young boys between the ages of ten to eighteen are forced to sell their bodies and their dancing skills to meet their families’ financial needs. These young boys are called Bacha Bareesh, or beardless boys, and the practice itself is called Bacha Bazi (play boy). Powerful men target handsome boys, make them dress up as females, wear makeup, and dance in men’s parties. Some of these boys are taken from their families in promise of work, education or a better life. Mostly their families are not aware of the fact that they are being sexually exploited as sex slaves.
These boys were passed around after parties among powerful men for their sexual gratification. Bacha Bazi exists as a sexual companionship between powerful men and their conscripts (young boys). The power imbalance between young boys and powerful men put these young boys in a very vulnerable position.
When these boys reach at the age of nineteen or when their beard begins to show, they are released by their owners and are simply expected to carry on with their lives. However, the psychological damage caused by years of sexual abuse and social isolation makes it difficult to reintegrate with society.
Who are the victims?
These young boys are often kidnapped; Most of them are from poor families, who work in the street, or they are the breadwinner of their families. Most of the perpetrators take these boys from their families in exchange for money or income. In fact, most of these families have no idea what is actually happening to their young boys. Poverty drives many families to sell their boys in exchange for money. Mostly boys from poor families are targeted. These boys are made to wear women’s clothes, belt a ring in their feet and train by musician on how to sing and dance in order to entertain men.
Domestic violence, illiteracy and poverty increase the vulnerability of children to abuse and exploitation. It is estimated that there are 65,000 children living in poverty in Kabul who are vulnerable to such kinds abuses.
Who are the perpetrators?
The former Mujahidin commanders are greatly involved in this practice, particularly in the post-Taliban era. Today, many of these Mujahidin/warlords serve in important positions, as governors, line ministers, police chiefs, and military commanders. Owning and having more than one boy is seen as a display of both power and wealth among some Afghan warlords. According to doctor Sobh Rang, warlords may keep up to 10 boys. Perpetrators have been protected by the police because these warlords have extensive influence. Some evidence shows that even police attend these types of gatherings.
One of the victims of Bacha Bazi told Radio Azadi “It is so acceptable that even the police would be sat among men cheering the boys on; everyone enjoys the dance parties, and no one raises their voices against this practice.” The practice is so extensive that even in certain local songs the words Bacha Baz (boy lover) is used. Nobody raises their voice against the practice, because of the shame associated to it. Society blames the victims rather than the perpetrator.
Most of the perpetrators are the main advocates of Islam, while homosexuality is strictly prohibited in Islam. Perpetrators sexually exploit young boys and use them as sex slaves. Warlords, religious leaders, and Mujahidin commanders have used religion for their political purpose for decades; or it is a way to advance their personal interests. Religion matters only so long as it does not clash with their personal interests. When it comes to women and women’s rights, they always criticize women for provoking men, but when they don’t have access women they use young boys for their sexual gratification.
What are the causes of Bacha Bazi?
Tight gender segregation in Afghan society and a lack of contact with women have contributed to the spread of Bacha Bazi. In Afghanistan, women are not allowed to dance in public; instead, boys are being used. Male dominant culture has contributed to the spread of this practice. Homosexuality is forbidden in Islam, but those involved in Bacha Bazi justify their actions by saying that, since they are not in love with these boys, it doesn’t apply.
The perpetrators are not being held responsible for crimes they commit, therefore impunity and gender inequality contributed to the spread of the practice. The factors such as a lack of legislative implementation, inadequate rule of law, a weak justice system, a corrupt judicial system, illiteracy, poverty, powerful militias groups involved in the practice, and instability, have also contributed to the spread of the practice. According to military experts in Afghanistan, the lawlessness that followed the deposing of the Taliban’s in rural Pashtun and northern Afghanistan gave rise to violent expressions of pedophilia. The Pashtun rural culture is mostly male dominated and misogynistic, which gives rise to a system of gender reversal. Factors such as chronic instability, gender inequality, displacement, inadequate services, access constraints and discriminatory practices fueled the underreporting of conflict-related sexual violence across Afghanistan, contributing to the rise of Bacha Bazi.
What are the consequences/impacts of Baca Bazi?
These boys are often unable to run away due to fear of violence or even death. Once they reach adulthood, their psychological trauma makes it very difficult for these boys to readjust to society. Many of today’s adolescent victims will likely become powerful warlords or Bacha Baz (boy lovers), and in this way the cycle of abuse will be perpetuated. Social stigma makes it difficult for former dancing boys to reestablish a male identity. They fail to find a decent work or profession so many of them turn to drugs or alcohol as coping mechanisms. They have fear that their identity (beardless) will be discovered by the community because of the shame associated with it. Most of these boys are deeply stressed; they have trust issues, pessimistic feelings, and a desire for revenge that makes it difficult for them to readjust to society. Victims thus often end up socially isolated, both during and after their release. The victims of Bacha Bazi suffer from serious psychological harm and the victim’s psychological harm remains for a long times, even they quit. These children have low levels of self-esteem and self-respect.
Bacha bazi also has a negative impact on women’s rights in Afghanistan. It is a mandate that all men should get married to one or more women and have children. Mostly these marriages are often devoid of love and affection. They are getting married because it is expected from society that all young men and women should get married, otherwise they will be questioned by family, relatives, and society. These men in spite of having wives trend toward these young’s boys and it is the sign of losing interest in their opposite sex. Women are mostly being treated as child-bearing machines. If this practice does not stop it will be passed out through generations.
According to Christian Stephen, the victims of Bacha Bazi not only face psychological trauma, but serious physical and health concerns such as, internal hemorrhaging, protrusion of intestines, throat injuries, heavy internal bleeding, broken limbs, fractures, broken teeth, strangulation, and in some cases, death. Sima Samar, the former chief of Afghanistan Independent Human Right Commission (AIHRC) says that many victims are sold by human traffickers and are used as sexual tools in the hands of powerful men.
What are the preventive mechanisms?
Bacha Bazi is illegal as per International Conventions and Afghanistan’s national laws. For example, Bach Bazi is prohibited in the Universal Convention on the Rights of Childs and other human rights conventions which Afghanistan has ratified. Article 34 of Universal Convention on the Rights of Childs highlighted the state’s obligation to prevent the sexual exploitation and abuse of children: “State party should take appropriate measures to prevent the sexual exploitation and abuse of children.” According to these conventions, the state party is obliged to fight against sexual exploitation of children and protect children from any kind of exploitation.
The Afghan government finally moved to stamp out Bacha Bazi and revised the country’s criminal code to define it as a crime. Afghanistan’s revised penal code, which entered into force in February 2018, not only criminalized the recruitment and use of children in military units but also outlawed Bacha Bazi. Chapter Five of the criminal code of Afghanistan consists of 15 Articles that not only criminalize the practice of Bacha Bazi, but also target those who are indirectly involved or participate in such gatherings. The Child Protection Law was debated in Afghanistan’s Parliament and many parliament members were against the law and consider it against Islamic values. Recently this law has been passed and right now is in force. Chapter 15, Article 99 of Child Protection Law also prohibits the practice of Bacha Bazi.
Afghanistan’s legal system is complex and consists of three parallel regulatory frameworks: statutory, customary, and religious. Due to the diversity in the legal system, there are various norms and mechanisms that exist to settle disputes and practices such as Bacha Bazi. In Afghanistan, local war lords enjoy an unprecedented amount of power over communities. These complicated power dynamics are one of the reasons why national law has been relatively inconsequential in eradicating Bacha Bazi.
In Afghanistan, power comes from people, and the government has a less influential role. The source of truth originates from the law of God and that is what people generally believe should be followed. Government does not have the capacity to enforce the criminalization of the practice. Change comes only through a change in culture, and that this will necessarily involve in-person negotiations with local leaders, and condemnation by religious leaders. In Afghanistan, however, the perpetrators have been protected by the police, who are scared to upset powerful warlords and businessmen.
Why has Afghanistan’s government failed to tackle the practice?
In Afghanistan, the pride of a family and having a good reputation and status in society is more important than anything else. That is why many victims and their families chose to be silent. People most often hear the perpetrator voices rather than the victims. Mostly the perpetrators are having a good social status in the society and respected in the community. For example, Mullah (religious leader), community elders, or even in worst case scenario the teachers and school principals are involved in Bachi Bazi, such as the Logar case.
On 13 November 2019, the Guardian released a report detailing a pedophile ring that abused at least 546 boys from six schools in Logar province. Musa Mahmoodi, head of civil society of Logar province, shared his research with the guardian. Approximately 100 videos of sexual harassment of students in Logar Province had been uploaded to social media, which were later taken down. As per the Guardian report, five families killed their sons after the videos appeared on social media. Shortly after this report, Mussa Mahmoodi and one of his colleagues disappeared. Later on it has been found out that they are detained by the National Directorate of Security, and NDS said they are in protective custody; but a released video shows that he is under tremendous pressure. The NDA has long history of torture and arbitrary detention. In a video released by the NDS, Musa Mahmmodi said his research incomplete and incorrect, therefore he apologizes to the people of Afghanistan. Through the interference of national and international human rights institutions, he got released; but still, no one knows where he is
It is taboo to talk about such incidents because people do not trust the legal system, and because of the shame associated with the practice. Powerful men can skip the law by paying huge amount of money. The numbers of Bacha Bazi cases are more than what is reported because of cultural and traditional issues and concerns for the family and its victims. The interesting thing is the perpetrators remain the most influential people in this dynamic, respected and credible in a society where no one ever believes these people can commit such types of crimes.
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