They look for young boys who have nothing.

Rich and powerful men have been prowling the streets of Afghanistan in search of poor and orphaned boys to use as sex slaves and entertainment for centuries.

The boys, typically aged from 10-18, are coerced or abducted from the streets, then dressed in women’s clothes and forced to dance as entertainment.

They are referred to as “bachas” and used as dancers at private parties by powerful warlords, commanders, politicians and other members of the elite who keep them as a symbol of authority and affluence and often sexually exploit them.

It’s a centuries old practice in Afghanistan known as “bacha bazi” and in recent years it’s made a resurgence.

Afghanistan this week announced it is set to criminalize bacha bazi 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 revealed the Taliban was exploiting bacha bazi, one of the most egregious violations of human rights in the country, to mount deadly insider attacks in the volatile south.

The issue first came to widespread international attention in the 2009 documentary The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan.
“He’s touching the boy with his cotton clothes,” a man sang to a young boy.

“Where do you live, so I can get to know your father.

“Oh boy, you have set your lover on fire.”

In 2007, “dancing boy” Ahmad, then 17, revealed: “I love my lord. I love to dance and act like a woman and play with my owner.”

“Once I grow up, I will be an owner and I will have my own boys,” he told Reuters.

“The police don’t ask why we’re doing it, but they threaten to arrest us,” another boy, Abdul, told Radio Free Europe.

“Many times they demand that we dance and have sex with them or give them money.”

In Afghanistan, bacha bazi is not considered homosexuality — popularly demonised and prohibited in Islam — and is instead accepted as a cultural practice.

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.

Why and how is this happening?

Tight gender segregation in Afghan society and lack of contact with women have contributed to the spread of bacha bazi, human 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 resulted in the spread of bacha bazi, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) said in a report in 2014.

AIHRC pointed out that Afghanistan’s criminal law prohibits rape and paederasty, but 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.

About the boys

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 teen victims are said to grow up to have young 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 think tank Chatham House.

“We have heard anecdotal reports that many grow up to keep their own bachas, perpetuating the revolving door of abuse.”

The Bacha Bazi flow-on effect

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 last year.

“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.

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