No Child’s Play
An appalling practice in Afghanistan that feeds the fancies of mature men.
A pastime peculiar to tribal culture.
Groups of men stream into a modest, albeit tastefully decorated, cemented house overlooking a massive courtyard, lined with chairs that have been placed upon intricately designed carpets. Christmas lights adorn the side roof as arrangements are made to have everyone seated.
From the looks of it, it seems as if locals from nearby towns and villages have gathered for a wedding. On close inspection though, one realizes the reason is actually of a much more sinister nature.
As soon as all the men have managed to find their seats, a young boy, no more than 10 years of age, steps out from inside the house. His innocent face painted with bright pink eye shadow and red lipstick triggers shouts of excitement along with a few whistles from the audience. The frail young boy, dressed in glittering colours of red and yellow, begins to dance, moving his body seductively to the rhythm of an old Afghani folk song. The crowd is soon stirred into frenzy, with many men getting up to dance with the young performer.
Then, when the dance is over, the lights are turned off and everybody gets up to leave, the boy is taken away where the true horror of his role is finally revealed. A group of middle-aged men take turns in sexually abusing the child for the sake of their own gratification. Once done, each patron makes a hefty payment to the child’s ‘owner’ who almost always keeps the entire amount to himself.
Known as one of the worst forms of sex slavery, this practice of bacha bazi (which literally means ‘boy play’), has been around for decades, gaining momentum over the last 15 years, thanks to Afghanistan’s rising poverty and the exit of the Taliban. Men scout the streets for young boys in search for employment to make their very own bacha bereesh (beardless boys who are highly desired by rich, male patrons). Once these boys have been lured with the promise of work or education, they are trained to become dancers and are forced to perform dressed as girls with flowing skirts and make-up.
Barat Ali Batoor, a freelance photographer hailing from Hazara, Afghanistan, spent months winning the trust and documenting the lives of these ill-fated young boys. Beginning his photography career in 2002, Batoor has won numerous accolades and awards for his work called, ‘The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan’ which provided an in-depth view on the plight of many young boys forced to become sex slaves. “The boys don’t earn anything from the parties,” explains Batoor. “But they live as though they are in a relationship with their masters, so their masters keep them, house them and buy them food and things. They have sex with their masters and then at the parties they are abused by different people.”
Such revelations come as a shock to many, mainly due to the prevailing perception that exists of the country. Afghanistan, as we know it, (or as per what the international media insists on telling us), is a barren wasteland engulfed in civil war; where poverty is rife and where extremist groups have exerted their influence and power to create their own version of society.
And yet, deep beneath this carefully crafted façade of conventional ideals, customs and traditional values, this terrible secret holds the potential to completely expose the country’s social order from its core.
In a national inquiry launched by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) in August 2014, interviews conducted of both perpetrators as well as victims of bacha bazi along with local elite and witnesses who condone it, revealed startling information about the extent of the practice. Through 71 focus group sessions and 17 public hearing sessions held in 17 provinces of the country, it was found that, in terms of social status, 64% of the perpetrators constituted normal people living in society. Of this percentage, the rich, the commanders and the elderly, each contributed 8%.
The inquiry also shed light on the victims of bacha bazi with reports stating that most of them fell under the age of 18; 42% of those victims were found to be between 13 to 15 years of age.
In his book, ‘Afghanistan: The Perfect Failure’, John L. Cook describes the circumstances in the country which has ultimately played a pivotal role in shaping most Afghanis’ rather skewed perspective of what is considered to be ‘normal’. “It is not uncommon for [a] husband to bring a male sexual partner into the marriage, with or without his wife’s consent,” Cook writes. “Under these conditions, it is not surprising that Afghanistan has developed a distorted view of what normal, healthy sexual relationships are all about. This is explained in a famous saying in Afghanistan: ‘Women are for babies, boys are for fun.’
It is this view that has led to nearly 69.5% of perpetrators, according to the inquiry, to state their motives for bacha bazi to be that of recreation, lust and personal interest. What is perhaps even more shocking is the sheer denial of any wrongdoing; according to accounts stated in the inquiry, 86% of the perpetrators have claimed that the boys that they own are happy with the way they treat them. Their victims present a different side to that statement with 87% of them stating that they had been trapped against their will.
By the time these boys reach maturity, the damage is already done and made permanent, as illustrated by John L. Cook, who paints a rather somber picture of what is to be expected. “When the boys reach maturity and their owners can no longer pretend that they are young girls, they are of no interest to their owners. When this occurs, they are usually set free to deal with, on their own, whatever psychological damage this experience has dealt them.” According to the report drafted by the AIHRC, former bacha bereeshes suffer from serious psychological trauma as a result of the sexual abuse and the ensuing behaviour of their families. Forcibly shunned by society, these children either die from drugs and acts of violence or end up becoming abusers themselves.
The Afghanistan government had previously turned a blind eye to the horrors of bacha bazi and has only now begun to take action. The report released by the AIHRC has struck a nerve at the highest levels with numerous ministries of justice and religion campaigning for penalties and punishment for the perpetrators. For the first time in decades, a law that deals directly with the practice of bacha bazi has begun to be put into place. It is hoped that other measures suggested by the AIHRC, specifically related to the repatriation and rehabilitation of children within society along with a crackdown on powerful outfits that support the spread of bacha bazi, will also be executed in due time.
Once these boys have been lured with the promise of work or education, they are trained to become dancers and are forced to perform dressed as girls with flowing skirts and make-up.