Background of Bacha Bazi
Young boys who are between ages of ten to eighteen are forced to sell their bodies and their dancing skills to meet their families’ financial needs. These young boys called Bacha Bareesh, or beardless boys, and the practice itself called Bacha Bazi (boy play). Powerful men target handsome boys, make them dress 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 that they are being sexually exploited as sex slaves.
These boys are 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 places these young boys in a very vulnerable position.
When these boys reach the age of nineteen or when their beard begins to show, they are released by their owners and 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 the society.
Who are the victims?
These young boys are often being kidnapped; Most of these boys 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 then made to wear women’s clothes, and trained by musicians on how to sing and dance 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 of abuses.
Who are the perpetrators?
Many former Mujahiddin commanders are involved in this practice particularly, in post-Taliban era. Today, many of these Mujaddin/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 war lords. Doctor Sobh Rang has been reported as saying that warlords may keep up to 10 boys. The perpetrators have been protected by the police because these warlords have so much influence. The 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., and every one enjoy the dance parties, and no one raise their voices against this practice”. This practice so prevalent that even in local songs the words Bacha Baz (boy lover) has been used. Nobody, it seems, is raising their voice against this practice, because of the shame associated to it. Society blames the victims, rather than the perpetrator.
Ironically, most of the perpetrators are advocates of Islam, despite homosexuality being strictly prohibited in Islam. Warlords, religious leaders, and Mujahiddin commanders have used religion for their political purpose for decades — or it is a way for reaching their personal interests. Religion matters as long as it does not clash with their personal interests.
What are the causes of Bacha Bazi?
Tight gender segregation in Afghan society and lack of contact with women have contributed to the spread of Bacha Bazi. In Afghanistan women are not allowed to dance in public, but instead boys are being used. Male dominant culture has contributed to the spread of this practice. As mentioned above, homosexuality is forbidden in Islam, but those who are involved in Bacha Bazi justify their actions by saying that they are not in love with these boys, therefore they are not gay.
The perpetrators are not being held responsible for the crimes they commit, therefore impunity and gender inequality contribute in the spread of this practice. The factors such as a lack of legislative implementation, inadequate rule of law, a weak justice system, corrupt judicial system, illiteracy, poverty, powerful militias groups involved in the this practice, and instability, have also contributed to the wide spread of this practice.
According to military experts in Afghanistan, the lawlessness that followed the deposing of the Taliban in rural Pashtun and northern Afghanistan gave rise to violent expressions of this practice. The Pashtun rural culture is mostly male dominated and misogynistic and has led to a system of gender reversal. The factors such as, chronic instability, gender inequality, displacement, inadequate services, access constraints and discriminatory practices have fueled the underreporting of conflict-related sexual violence across Afghanistan and has contributed to the crime of Bacha Bazi.
What are the consequences/impacts of Baca Bazi?
These boys are often unable to run away due to fear of violence and death. Once they reach their late teens the psychological trauma make it very difficult for these boys to readjust in society. Many of today’s adolescent victims will likely become powerful warlords or Bacha Baz (boy lovers), 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 and alcohol as coping mechanisms. All too often, they fear that their identity will be discovered by the community and the associated shame.
Most of these boys are deeply stressed, express a lack of trust, are pessimistic and have feelings of revenge — all of which make it difficult for theme to readjust within society. Victims are often isolated from society, both during and after their release. The victims of Bacha Bazi suffer from serious psychological harms that remain with them for long times, even after they quit. These children have low levels of self-esteem and self-respect.
Additionally, Bacha bazi has a negative impact on women’s rights in Afghanistan. It is expected that all men should be married and have children. In some cases, these marriages are devoid of love and affection. The men are getting married because it is expected from society that all young men and women should do so, otherwise they are being questioned by family, relatives and society. These men in spite of having wives trend toward these young boys. The wives of these men involved in this practice are mostly being treated child-bearing machines. If this practice does not stop it will be passed down through generations.
According to Christian Stephen, the victims of bacha bazi not only face psychological trauma, but they suffer serious physical and health concerns, and in some cases, death. Sima Samar, the former chief of Afghanistan Independent Human Right Commission (AIHRC), says that, many victims are trafficked by human traffickers and they are being 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 National Laws. For example, Bach Bazi is prohibited, in Universal Convention on the Rights of the Child and other human rights conventions, which Afghanistan has ratified. Article 34 of Universal Convention on the Rights of the Child highlights the states parties obligation to 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 the sexual exploitation of children and protect children from any kind of exploitation.
The Afghan government has made some moves 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 Criminal Code of Afghanistan consists of 15 Articles that not only criminalize the practice of Bacha Bazi, but also those who are indirectly involved or participate in such gatherings will be punished. The Child Protection Law was a debated in Afghanistan’s Parliament and many parliament members were opposed to this law and considered it against Islamic values. Eventually, the law was passed and right now it is applicable. 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 the 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 change in culture, and 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 the powerful warlords and businessmen.
Why Afghanistan’s government failed to tackle this 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 choose to be silent. People most often hear the perpetrators’ voices, rather than those of the victims. Mostly the perpetrators are seen as having an esteemed social status in society and respected in the community. In some cases, even mullahs and community elders, or even in worst case scenario teachers and school directors, have been involved in Bachi Bazi, such as in the Logar case.
On November 13, 2019 the UK based newspaper The Guardian released a report on involvement of criminal ring that was responsible for the abuse of at least 546 boys from six schools in the Logar province. Musa Mahmoodi Head of civil society of Logar province shared his research with The Guardian. Approximately 100 videos of sexual harassment cases of students in the Logar Province had been uploaded to social media before later being taken down. As per The Guardian report, five families killed their sons after the videos appeared in social media.
Shortly after this report Mussa Mahmoodi, and one other colleague of his, disappeared. Later it was discovered that they were detained by the National Directorate of Security. While the NDS said they were in protective custody, a released video showed that Mussa Mahmoodi was under tremendous pressure. NDA has long history of torture and arbitrary detention. In a video released by NDS, Musa Mahmmodi said his research was incomplete and incorrect and he apologized to the people of Afghanistan. By interference of national and international human rights institutions Mussa Mahmoodi was released, but still no one knows where he is.
It is taboo to talk about such incidences because people do not trust the responsive mechanism or legal system and because of the shame associated to it. It is reported that powerful men can skip the law by paying huge amounts 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. As the perpetrators are often the most influential, respected and credible members in society, many people find it hard to believe that they could commit such types of crimes.
*Zarifa Sabet is currently working as Senior Gender and Youth Advisor with USAID/SHAHAR Kabul. She is also a contributor writer with South Asian Monitor. She has done a Master of International Relations from South Asian University, New Delhi, India.