No Child’s Play

An ap­palling prac­tice in Afghanistan that feeds the fan­cies of ma­ture men.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Mahrukh Fa­rooq The writer is a mem­ber of the staff.

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.

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