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The Horror of Bacha Bazi

Updated: Oct 4, 2021

"All grown-ups were once children... but only few of them remember it." Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The bacha bazi have never been children, and not only cannot they have memories about it, but not even the perception!

In Afghanistan, in fact, in what has become an actual business, children have a price. The bacha bazi, in persian “playing, hanging out together”, can be identified as a kind of contemporary sexual slavery of children which endangers the lives of vulnerable youngsters. Leaving them with few or no abilities to have a significant life.

1. History and Meaning

The roots of bacha bazi are traced back to the ancient cultures of Central Asia. Nonetheless, the practice appeared in its modern form in the 19th century.

It generally involves rich Afghans, often pashtun,, who purchase children and youngsters for sexual exploitation or entertainment.

Women, in fact, are forbidden to work as dancers or entertainers in many areas of Afghanistan, and hence they (children, youngsters) are used in their place.

These children, known as bacha bareesh or “kids without beard”, are aged 7 to 18 and they usually come from really poor contexts. Their parents are persuaded to give up their children in exchange for money, food or land, with the promise that they will receive education and jobs. Others instead are just kidnapped without any possibility of choice.

Apparently the youngsters work as dancers at private parties, but in reality many of them are forced to have sexual intercourses with their masters. The kids that refuse to do that are often raped without any chance of denouncing the fact, because the law would not protect them and they would even risk other violence or death. It’s happened in fact, that some of them were sentenced to death for homosexuality, which is severely punished in Afghanistan and especially in rural areas where the village chief have absolute power. The children are also generally prived of any type of education, hence eliminating for them any chance to have a different future. In the end, dancing is the only skill that most of these youngsters will have for the rest of their life. This increases their chances of facing physical and sexual violence, receiving homoerotic attentions and public shame.

The sexual violence exposes the kids to several traumas that represent an obstacle to their growth, and to their opportunities and possibilities of having a normal life. Their parents’ despair for losing a child to sexual slavery is worsened by the thought of their children becoming addicted to opiate they are given in order to subjugate them.

A documentary made by PBS Frontline, “The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan” fdraws a dreadful and precise picture of the situation. An Afghan journalist who had access to an area of sexual exploitation in the province of Takhar, in the north of Afghanistan, investigates on this illegal practice, talking to the kids and their masters, and reporting how the Afghan authorities, who hold the responsibility to stop these crimes, are sometimes themselves involved in them and first line participants to the dancing ceremonies. An 11 years old boy, Imam, is at his first training day. His exploiters gave money to his family and told them they were going to take care of him and his needs. When the journalist asks the baby if he’s happy, he says yes. He says he’s doing it for money, for his family. His training will last for a year: six months dedicated to studying musical instruments, and the other six to learn how to dance and sing under the supervision of the bacha baz, their teachers.

“You take my breath away with your beauty. You really want that I lost my control”. These the exclamations of his master [4].

According to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), the victims are often beaten, and suffer injuries that lead to internal bleeding, protrusion of intestines, throat wounds, broken bones and in some cases, death.

It does not come as a surprise that AIHRC found out that 81% of the victims want to leave the so-called “profession”.

During the Afghan civil war the Talibans had made the bacha bazi illegal, as it was considered not-Islamic and incompatible with Sharia law. From 1993 to the American invasion in 2001, the practice was punishable with death. The bacha bazi started increasing again with the decline of the Taliban regime in 2002 and from that moment on the phenomenon came back not only in remote towns but even in major cities like Kabul and Kandahar. If on one hand the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 increased the chances of some oppressed groups, like for example women, little has been done for the bacha bazi.

The harsh punishments of the Talibans did not apply anymore because of the power void left by the war. Furthermore, the bacha bazi was not only practiced by rich men or warlords, but also by the Afghan police force. The government's complicity thus rapidly became a problem. According to some sources, many high-ranking officials are reportedly involved in the bacha bazi and rarely prosecuted by their colleagues. Most people that are involved in this, paid bribes or were familiar with the law enforcement, prosecutors or judges, who effectively exempted them from prosecution. [5]

2. The US and the International Community’s Intervention

The International community supported the Afghan government in facing fundamental issues regarding post-conflict state-building, taking care of media freedom, education, female emancipation, trying to eliminate violence against women, reducing poverty, and so on.

Nonetheless, they did not employ the same efforts in regard to the bacha bazi. During the US occupation, the US commanders underestimated the phenomenon or could not take care of it to the extent they wanted to. According to the New York Times the soldiers had to look elsewhere, because it was their culture after all [6]. In fact, the US armed forces had the order to ignore the abuses on minors that the Afghan militias committed, in order to keep them as allies in the fight against the Talibans. The army struggled to define an approach that would balance the need to cooperate with the Afghan partners with the need to defend human rights and guarantee safety to the population. Furthermore, the risk that the US soldiers, after assisting at these acts could get into a violent confrontation with the perpetrators, became more and more concrete.

It was such an incident indeed that brought a commander from the special forces to be removed from his role and brought back home after having hit a commander from the Afghan militia for keeping a boy chained at his bed as a sexual slave. NGOs as Human Right's Watch highlighted how, in a 2017 report the inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR) criticised the Afghan government for not adequately protecting the kids who were victim of sexual abuse. Also in 2017 the UN secretary general Antonio Guterres invited the Afghan government, in his report on conflict-related sexual violence, to adopt “a legislation aimed at criminalising the bacha bazi.[7]

A UN report in March 2019 highlighted how chronic instability, gender inequality, inadequate services and discrimination, all contributed to the underestimation of sexual violence in Afghanistan. In 2018, the UN assistance mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported 37 cases of sexual violence against women and girls. One of the cases also involved a bacha bazi. Nonetheless, the judicial proceedings regarding this practice are rare. The revised Afghan penal code, that came into effect in February 2018, includes forms of conflict-related sexual violence as war crime, crime against humanity and constitutive act of genocide. In August 2019 the UNAMA organized a dialogue with the government, the army, the Afghan police force, the international military force and the independent commission for human rights in Afghanistan, in order to develop strategies aimed at fighting the impunity related to sexual violence cases. The government was also asked to guarantee the prosecution of all the cases involving the bacha bazi, including the ones involving the Afghan national police and the military.

3. The effect on local populations

The large presence of Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs) has influenced local populations. In fact, these private companies have become major players in the global security structure since 2001. They have been heavily involved in Afghanistan’s intervention to provide military activities and security services. Indeed, international coalition troops have enlisted the help of private contractors, who have been guilty of human rights abusive behaviour over time. Scandals about illegal activities and incidents resulting in abuses and violations of these rights have highlighted their direct implication for the instability of the country [8]. DynCorp, for example, a U.S.-based company, saw some of its staff involved requesting young bacha barees for company parties, violating both sharia and Afghan civil law.

Human Rights Watch reports that the perpetrators of these abuses enjoyed impunity, despite Afghan demands that private contractors and security companies be subjected to much tighter government oversight [9]. A scandal involving local warlords and foreign employees who were entrusted with the security of the country, and not only they failed to contribute to this security, but they incentivized local people's reluctance to rely on the central government, increasing general distrust.

4. The Revised Penal Code

The Afghan judiciary system has been lacking laws regarding the bacha bazi practice until a few years ago. Nonetheless, in order to stop the practice, the government revised the Penal Code in 2018. Thanks to a new chapter dedicated to the criminalization of the practice of bacha bazi, the perpetrators could face up to seven years in prison, and in case they had several kids below 12 years old, they could face life imprisonment. Chapter five is composed of fifteen articles that not only criminalize the practice of bacha bazi, but also the participation in events during which children dance. Furthermore, article 660 describes in detail the punishment for the Afghan national security forces involved in the practice of bacha bazi, who could face up to 15 years in prison.

5. Gender Approach

It is not possible to eliminate the phenomenon of bacha bazi without also considering the absence of women rights in the country. Afghan men have no possibility of having relationships with women until marriage. As a consequence, with the creation of a sort of prison culture, men look for company through young boys, hence the people most physiologically close to women, with the aim of satisfying their urges.

In short, until this and other societies won’t overcome the stigma and the culturally consolidated discrimination against women, practices like the bacha bazi will continue to spread.

In regard to gender equality, it is important not to make men feel a sort of discrimination on the contrary, in a dimension where only women are at the center of social attention, or where they are accused for their life-style.

Furthermore, gender discussions could bring to an open hostility against what comes to be perceived as “foreign intrusion”. Unfortunately, the result of these difficulties was a slow progress in gender mainstreaming. Results from research on gender relations from a male perspective, point out, in fact, the existence of a big social pressure on men, especially on younger ones, so that they will resemble male stereotypes; for example, forbidding women to emerge outside the house limits and enter the public sphere.

6. Conclusions

Sexual abuse is still very common in Afghanistan. The society is still deeply rooted in its traditional values. Not even the introduction of a law against children sexual slavery was enough: the awareness around the issue is still very low.

On the 19 December 2019, the European Parliament passed an urgent resolution, resolution asking the public prosecutor’s office to start an independent and impartial investigation in regard to the accusations of sexual abuse and violence on children in the Logar province, where 136 kids from at least six schools were sexually abused by a pedophile organization.

The MEPs condemned the frequent abuses and sexual slavery acts against children still spread in Afghanistan, and invited the central and local Afghan authorities to try and pursue the active measures aimed at eliminating the bacha bazi practice in the country.

The European Parliament asked the Afghan government to remove from office people accused of pedophilia, and to follow the iter for the approval of the “Child Protection Act”, and to do anything possible in order to apply the international norms in protection of children. About the issue, the Afghan government and Unicef agreed on a programme 2020-21. Shima Sengupta, director of Unicef Afghanistan, said that the children need to face too many challenges, and “all this requires a joint and urgent effort”[10].

The moral sense of a society can be weighed evaluating the treatment of children. There is no culture or tradition that deserves comprehension if it violates a children’s dignity. If it could be possible to introduce a social code that would integrate the principles of Islam with social justice and would effectively marginalise the archaic and offensive aspects of warlord culture, there would still be some hope for Afghanistan.


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