In Afghanistan, boys as young as nine are forced to dress up as women and dance for older men, only to be raped after their performance. The practice continues despite being prohibited in February, with families powerless against those ‘pimping’ their children. Journalist Eden Gillespie investigates.
A shameful practice has plagued Afghanistan for centuries. One where boys as young as nine are forced to dress up as women and dance for older men, only to be raped after their performance, and are kept as concubines until the age of 20 .
It is referred to as Bacha Bazi or “boy play”. Rampant throughout all levels of Afghan society, an estimated one in ten Afghan boys are victims of this cultural blight.
Afghanistan finally criminalised Bacha Bazi in February, announcing perpetrators would face punitive measures but months later, little has changed. In lieu of a date of enforcement, the abuse of young boys continues, with families powerless against those ‘pimping’ out their children.
According to Bill Mankins, Former Lead Social Scientist of the US Army in Afghanistan, Bacha Bazi comes in two forms.
The first type of Bacha Bazi is a distinct and horrific form of sexual abuse where young boys are taken from their families and used as sex slaves. Mankins says that in several US raids Afghan boys have been found chained up and bleeding from sexual injures. In one case, Former US Marine, Miles Vining, recalls a boy being taken to the Helmand Province base to be stitched up by a medic from a severe sexual injury.
Somehow, the most extreme manifestations of the practice have been excused through the popular saying ‘women are for child bearing, boys are for pleasure’. The practice is so entrenched in Afghan society that it’s often referred to as a ‘cultural’ practice rather than as paedophilia.
This nightmarish sexual abuse is often triggered by ethnic tensions between Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns. In some cases boys are molested to humiliate and dishonour their families, often as a form of retribution or vengeance for acts like a village rebelling.
This violence has little to do with sex and more to do with power.
“It is the ultimate power expressed through a physical, sexual capacity. It is like saying ‘my ethnic group over your ethnic group. I am going to do this thing that will emasculate you and take any masculine power away from you’,” Mankins says.
The second form of Bacha Bazi tows the grey line of a ‘consensual’ relationship between a young man and an older man. While the age gap may hint at a power imbalance between the two men, the relationship will appear like a mutual arrangement. As Social Anthropologist Ted Callahan says “Bacha Bazi in the latter sense is more like prostitution or hiring a stripper for a stag party, which is already illegal in Afghanistan yet still widespread”.
Bacha Bazi is so prevalent that it’s been reported occurring on US army bases, right under the nose of the West. Vining says that in his time in Afghanistan there were up to six young ‘bachas’ (boys) that accompanied Afghan soldiers on a small patrol base in Nawa district, Helmand Province. He recalls both a commander and executive officer had sexual relationships with their own bacha during his deployment. However, he says the bachas appeared to be of consenting age and so US soldiers did not intervene.
Bacha Bazi when likened to paedophilia or sex slavery has been aggressively condemned by not only NGOs and the international community, but by the Taliban. However, despite claiming a deep aversion to the practice and charging it with the death penalty in 1996, the Taliban have been accused of partaking in the practice. And so these exploitative dance parties, peppered by acts of molestation, continue to rage on behind closed doors.
In Afghanistan, local war lords enjoy an unprecedented amount of power over communities. These complicated power dynamics are one of the reasons why federal law has been relatively inconsequential in eradicating Bacha Bazi.
Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani gained popularity by allowing local communities to have relative autonomy. In the current political climate, negotiations between war lords and families are kept hard-fast, with the power of the word often superseding the power of the federal law.
War lords or ‘pimps’ are skilled in hand-picking the poorest and most vulnerable boys in their community to work for them as dancers. Around half of victims are illiterate and 87% of victims cannot attend school, a 2014 AIHRC report found. This makes the luring of boys dreadfully easy, allowing pimps to cosy up to families with illustrious promises of employment and education.
Often Bacha Bazi presents as a way out of economic malaise in Afghanistan’s employment drought. “The country’s in a state of desperation, so they don’t even think about tomorrow. They’re thinking about now,” Professor Jasteena Dhillon, International Conflict and Development Expert says.
With many boys originating from extremely poor and rural farming communities, Bacha Bazi might seem like a promising escape from poverty. “In being a bacha to a local commander, they are fed well, they are dressed well, they are looked after, in exchange for being ‘Chai Boys’ or for sexual acts,” Vining says.
Most families are unaware of the severe sexual and physical abuse that comes with the job. The Human Rights Council has reported that victims often are 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’ that masquerades as human trafficking.
But quitting isn’t easy and requires extensive bargaining with powerful war lords. In other situations, if a bacha returns, he may be shunned by his community.
“If you stand up to a war lord, if they have those connections, forget it. The family will make a calculation. ‘If I want to say no to a war lord and protect my boy, I need to get another war lord to protect me, and what do I need to give that other war lord? Maybe I have to marry one of my daughters to him’,” Professor Dhillon says.
Bacha Bazi is deeply embedded in Pashtun and southern Afghanistan culture, making it particularly challenging to address. As a result the government does not have the capacity to enforce criminalisation of the practice and very few perpetrators have been prosecuted.
In Afghanistan, power comes from the bottom-up, with the government’s word ranking relatively inconsequential. Instead, the source of truth originates from the law of god and that is what people generally believe should be followed.
It is by “honey rather than the barrel of a gun” that Mankins says change should occur. He argues that recruiting local mullahs and religious leaders to speak out about Bacha Bazi is key to ending the practice.
“In traditional societies, theocratic societies, they don’t believe that we the people can actually decide anything. When the government says anything people are like ‘who is the government to say anything? They’re not god, they can’t make laws’,” Mankins says.
In line with other experts, Professor Dhillon speaks from her own experience when she says that reform can only come over long-term debate and in-person negotiations with locals.
“This is a horrible practice and all attempts to justify it from a historical and cultural perspective are absolutely baseless. But the only way to address it is by painstakingly going into the community, writing reports and trying to speak to people. It’s going to be the only way culturally that this changes,” Professor Dhillon says.
The ideological division between the West and Middle East has severed opportunities for reform, failing to bring an end to Bacha Bazi. Issues of cultural imperialism and interventionism continue to be questioned, considering many Afghan officials are resistant to incorporate what they deem Western perspectives’.
“The way we’ve intervened has been so counterproductive. Issues like this have become caught up in this politics instead of being addressed for what they are. That created a situation where people were considered traitors in their own cultures and some people that would advocate to end these practices felt like they had to choose sides,” says Professor Dhillon.
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