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 post-Taliban 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.
The State Department has mentioned the practice — which is illegal here, as it would be in most countries — in its annual human rights reports. The 2010 report said members of Afghanistan’s security forces, who receive training and weapons from the U.S.-led coalition, sexually abused boys “in an environment of criminal impunity.”
But by and large, foreign powers in Afghanistan have refrained from drawing attention to the issue. There are no reliable statistics on the extent of the problem.
“It is very sensitive and taboo in Afghanistan,” said Hayatullah Jawad, head of the Afghan Human Rights Research and Advocacy Organization, who is based in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif. “There are a lot of people involved in this case, but no one wants to talk about it.”
An open secret
A recent interview with Mirzahan and a handful of his friends who sexually exploit boys provided a rare glimpse into the lives of men who have taken on bacha bazi.
The men agreed to be interviewed together in a mud hut in this tiny village in Balkh province, accessible only by narrow, unpaved roads and just a few miles from areas where the Taliban is fighting the government for dominance. The men insisted that only their first names be used. Although the practice of bacha bazi has become something of an open secret in Afghanistan, it is seldom discussed in public or with outsiders.
Sitting next to the 9-year-old Waheed, who was wearing a pink pants-and-tunic set called a shalwar kameez, Mirzahan said he opted to take on the boy because marrying a woman would have been prohibitively expensive. The two have not had sex, Mirzahan said, but that will happen in a few years. For now, Waheed is being introduced to slightly older “dancing boys.”