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.