A growing number of Afghan children are being coerced into a life of sexual abuse. The practice of wealthy or prominent Afghans exploiting underage boys as sexual partners who are often dressed up as women to dance at gatherings is on the rise in Afghanistan, according to Afghan human rights researchers, Western officials and men who participate in the abuse.
?Like it or not, there was better rule of law under the Taliban,? said Dee Brillenburg Wurth, a child-protection expert at the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, who has sought to persuade the government to address the problem. ?They saw it as a sin, and they stopped a lot of it.?
Over the past decade, the phenomenon has flourished in Pashtun areas in the south, in several northern provinces and even in the capital, according to Afghans who engage in the practice or have studied it. Although issues such as women?s rights and moral crimes have attracted a flood of donor aid and activism in recent years, bacha bazi remains poorly understood.
Boys who become bachas are seen as property, said Jawad, the human rights researcher. Those who are perceived as being particularly beautiful can be sold for tens of thousands of dollars. The men who control them sometimes rent them out as dancers at male-only parties, and some are prostituted.
?This is abuse,? Jawad said. ?Most of these children are not willing to do this. They do this for money. Their families are very poor.?
Although the practice is thought to be more widespread in conservative rural areas, it has become common in Kabul.
Afghan men have exploited boys as sexual partners for generations, people who have studied the issue say. The practice became rampant during the 1980s, when mujaheddin commanders fighting Soviet forces became notorious for recruiting young boys while passing through villages. In Kandahar during the mid-1990s, the Taliban was born in part out of public anger that local commanders had married bachas and were engaging in other morally licentious behavior.
Afghanistan?s legal codes are based mainly on sharia, or Islamic law, which strictly prohibits sodomy. The law also bars sex before marriage. Under Afghan law, men must be at least 18 years old and women 16 to marry.
During the Taliban era, men suspected of having sex with men or boys were executed. In the late 1990s, amid the group?s repressive reign, the practice of bacha bazi went underground. The fall of the Taliban government in late 2001 and the flood of donor money that poured into Afghanistan revived the phenomenon.
Other men in the room started playing dancing boy videos on their cell phones so I could see what their gatherings were like. There was no apparent shame to what they were showing me. I asked if they felt the practice was exploitative. They said it wasn?t, because boys 10 years and older understood what they were getting into and reaped benefits from the relationship. I asked whether what they were doing went against Islam. They said the mullahs, or religious leaders, condemned it, but that they didn?t see anything morally wrong with it.