Boy Play- “Bacha Bazi”
An Ancient and “Un-Islamic” Custom
Bacha bazi, or boy play, is an ancient custom that goes back centuries and possibly thousands of years in Afghanistan. It was banned under the Taliban regime but has been revived, particularly in northern regions, since the Taliban’s demise and attendant increase in certain freedoms. The practice has been brought to light by several international news agencies and has been condemned by Islamic scholars as un-Islamic and as a form of sexual slavery by the United Nations Under-Secretary-General, Radhika Coomaraswamy.
In this deplorable custom, powerful men take poor and vulnerable boys into their “protection”. They promise to train them or give them work and prepare them for a better life. In reality, the boys are taken into a form of sexual slavery from which they have no escape. Their “masters” teach the boys to entertain their personal and business friends by dressing in women’s clothing and dancing seductively in front of all-male audiences.
Masters also compete among each other for prestige and social rank for having the best boys. At the end of the evening the boys are often shared for sexual favours or bought and sold among masters and such events often end in assault and rape. Boys have been killed as a result of disputes between the masters or for attempting to escape.
There is no way around the conclusion that this practice is slavery and abuse. The boys taken into this life are young teens and children as young as 11 and younger. They are poor and vulnerable, often orphans or street-children or from poor or abusive families, and are lured under false pretences. They are sometimes even sold into this life by family or relatives who either do not know or simply feel they have no choice because they have nothing better to offer.
Once the true nature of the relationship is revealed it is too late. Even if a boy is able to escape, he is burdened with the stigma of having been bacha bazi. One of the most heart-wrenching aspects of this despicable practice is that often when the boys grow up they in turn take boys of their own, condemning generations of Afghan boys to a vicious cycle of sexual abuse and slavery.
The practice of bacha bazi also crosses over into the issue of women’s rights. It leads to men neglecting their wives in favour of their boys. It can also lead to forced marriages when boys grow too old to continue in bacha bazi and require wives for social acceptability.
There is no excuse for those who engage in such practices. Yet lack of enforcement is leading to a culture of impunity where rich and powerful men know that they will not bear any consequences for their actions. As a result, they act with complete disregard for the law. At the same time, law enforcement authorities responsible for stopping these practices are not held accountable for their failure to do their job or at times their participation in the very crimes they are supposed to be eliminating. Whether authorities neglect the practice entirely or engage in a false pretence of enforcement arresting and promptly releasing perpetrators, ignorance, negligence, indifference, or pressure and fear of powerful perpetrators are not excuses.
The children are Afghanistan’s future. Children are the most vulnerable of all and need the protection and guidance of their parents and communities. When the Taliban was said to have executed a young boy as a spy, news agencies reported that President Karzai called the act a crime against humanity and said, “A 7-year-old boy cannot be anything but a 7-year-old boy.” Certainly the same applies to young boys whose dignity, future, and too often their very lives are stolen from them by men in pursuit of power, prestige, and sexual gratification.
Children have the right to a government that sincerely and through all means at its disposal is genuinely seeking to protect them and to create an environment in which they can be free and safe to pursue their own destiny. Just like the girls who need education and protection from forced marriages, the boys of Afghanistan have a right to education and to a government and police authorities that enforce the laws meant to protect them from sexual predators. If the people of Afghanistan and its leadership cannot protect the children, the country has no future.
OFWI understands the challenges facing Afghanistan after centuries of neglect and decades of war. However, a society that wishes to protect its children and its future does not require fancy technology or infinite resources. It requires the will and resolve of the people to work together for the good of the children. It also requires time and persistence while old habits, social structures, and inclinations are challenged and changed, but the rewards are infinitely worth the challenges in the process.
Bacha bazi holds young boys captive in a form of sexual slavery from which they have no escape. Some organizations are working to increase awareness about the practice, but in a largely illiterate society brochures are of limited use and small organizations can only achieve so much. The active role of state authorities is absolutely essential.
It is our understanding that the laws of Afghanistan are currently sufficient to bar this practice, but we have also noted complaints about the legal framework. In any event, the existing laws should be reviewed in consultation with Afghan organizations concerned with children’s rights and with assistance from international children’s and human rights organizations as well as child experts. If necessary, the laws should immediately be revised and updated.
Yet without enforcement the best laws are worthless. Enforcement and accountability of the authorities are the backbone of a civilized society. No one can be above the law. Perpetrators must be brought to justice and officials who fail to do so through negligence or collusion must be held accountable; they must be fired and prosecuted under appropriate laws. On the other hand, the government must also support the officers as well as prosecutorial officials in doing their jobs, so that they need not fear pursuing men who are often more powerful than they.
In the meantime, public education through every possible means is essential, both to ensure boys and their families are made aware of the danger and can seek other options, and to discourage men from deciding to take up this practice in the first place. It is our hope that Afghan boys and girls will be able to have the opportunities to obtain a real education and to contribute to improving their well-being and that of their families and communities.
Please speak out and send a message to the government of Afghanistan, directly and through your own government officials, that the human rights abuses are unacceptable. Afghan boys deserve better. The Afghan people deserve better…
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Fadin (age 14) has been kidnapped twice. He was forced to wear women's clothing and dance and was raped by men and beaten. Unlike many others, he is one of the lucky ones; the last time this happened, his father was alerted to it and rescued him.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
Article 24, paragraph 1:
Every child shall have, without any discrimination as to …, sex, … the right to such measures of protection as are required by his status as a minor, on the part of his family, society and the State. …
The 2004 Constitution of Afghanistan:
The state shall be obligated to create a prosperous and progressive society based on social justice, preservation of human dignity, protection of human rights, realization of democracy, attainment of national unity as well as equality between all peoples and tribes and balance development of all areas of the country. (Emphasis added)
Liberty is the natural right of human beings. This right has no limits unless affecting others freedoms as well as the public interest, which shall be regulated by law. Liberty and human dignity are inviolable. The state shall respect and protect liberty as well as human dignity. (Emphasis added)
Family is the fundamental pillar of the society, and shall be protected by the state. The state shall adopt necessary measures to attain the physical and spiritual health of the family, especially of the child and mother, upbringing of children, as well as the elimination of related traditions contrary to the principles of the sacred religion of Islam. (Emphasis added)