an Afghan boy, who was held as a child sex slave, sitting at a restaurant in a unidentified location in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is set to lay out stringent penalties for “bacha bazi” -– sexual slavery and abuse of boys –- for the first time, officials say, in a landmark move against the deeply entrenched practice. AFP revealed last summer how the Taliban were exploiting rampant bacha bazi in police ranks to mount deadly insider attacks, with a subsequent article exposing a hidden epidemic of kidnapping of young boys for institutionalised sexual slavery.
/ AFP PHOTO / AREF KARIMI /
Afghanistan is set to criminalise the practice of “bacha bazi”, sexual exploitation of boys, with a slew of stringent punishments laid out for the first time in a revised penal code.
The move comes after an AFP report last year found the Taliban are exploiting the centuries-old practice, one of the most egregious violations of human rights in the country, to mount deadly insider attacks in the volatile south.
Here are some key answers about bacha bazi.
What is it?
Powerful warlords, commanders, politicians and other members of the elite often keep “bachas” as a symbol of authority and affluence.
Bachas, sometimes dressed as women, are often sexually exploited. They can also be used as dancers at private parties.
Bacha bazi is not widely seen as homosexual behaviour — popularly demonised as a deviant sexual act, prohibited in Islam — and is largely accepted as a cultural practice.
How common is it?
“Women are for child-rearing, boys are for pleasure” is a common saying across many parts of Afghanistan.
The ancient custom, banned under the Taliban’s 1996-2001 rule, has seen a resurgence in recent years. It is said to be widespread across southern and eastern Afghanistan’s rural Pashtun heartland, and with ethnic Tajiks across the northern countryside.
How has it been allowed to flourish?
Tight gender segregation in Afghan society and lack of contact with women have contributed to the spread of bacha bazi, rights groups say.
Several other factors such as an absence of the rule of law, corruption, limited access to justice, illiteracy, poverty, insecurity, and the existence of armed groups have also helped the practice spread, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) said in a report in 2014.
AIHRC points out that Afghanistan’s criminal law prohibits rape and pederasty, but so far there are no clear provisions on bacha bazi.
“There is a gap and ambiguity in the laws of Afghanistan regarding bacha bazi and the existing laws do not address the problem sufficiently,” the report said.
It is this gap which the government hopes the revised penal code will address.
But the government has a poor track record of implementing such measures, as many of the perpetrators have connections with the security organs and by using power and giving bribes they get exempted from punishment.
Where do the boys come from? And what happens to them afterwards?
Bachas are typically aged between 10 and 18. Many of them are kidnapped and sometimes desperate poverty drives their families to sell them to abusers.
“The victims of bacha bazi suffer from serious psychological trauma as they often get raped,” AIHRC’s report said.
“Such victims suffer from stress and a sort of distrust, hopelessness and pessimistic feeling. Bacha bazi results in fear among the children and a feeling of revenge and hostility develop in their mind.”
In turn, many adolescent victims are said to grow up to have boy lovers of their own, repeating the cycle of abuse.
“In the absence of any services to recover or rehabilitate boys who are caught in this horrendous abuse, it’s hard to know what happens to these children,” said Charu Lata Hogg, a London-based fellow at Chatham House, a think tank.
“We have heard anecdotal reports that many grow up to keep their own bachas, perpetuating the revolving door of abuse.”
How is bacha bazi impacting Afghan security?
Bacha bazi is having a detrimental bearing on the perpetual state of conflict in Afghanistan, helping the Taliban to infiltrate security ranks in provinces such as Uruzgan, officials say.
The abusive practice in security ranks also undermines support for NATO-trained Afghan forces.
“To date, the US has provided over $60 billion in assistance to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), including nearly $500 million to the Afghan Local Police,” the US Congress said in 2015.
“Predatory sexual behaviour by Afghan soldiers and police could undermine US and Afghan public support for the ANDSF, and put our enormous investment at risk.”
The practice also continues to embolden the Taliban’s desire to reassert sharia law in Afghanistan and is fuelling their insurgency.
“Such wild abuses of the predatory mujahideen forces in the early 1990s drove the popularity of the austere Taliban, helping them sweep to power across most of the country. Similar behaviour of the government forces after 2001 is also helping to inspire the insurgency,” a Western official in Kabul told AFP.