In 2015 the New York Times published a ground-breaking article outlining the way ISIS uses rape and the sexual slavery of girls as part of their recruitment. It was a shocking and gut-wrenching expose, giving voice to even more of the atrocities being committed by these terrorists and extremists.
It has sadly become a common tool for extremists and violent groups to use rape as a way to control, capture and diminish the lives of women and girls, especially in conflict zones and war. And while we often read stories about young boys being recruited as child soldiers or being groomed by extremists, there are also some who are forced to become sex slaves by groups who you would least likely suspect – policemen, military, and security forces.
In 2016, the AFP reported on the secret ” bacha bazi”, meaning “boy play” which is the sexual slavery and abuse of boys which has been taking place in Afghanistan under the radar for many years. They described the practice of bacha bazi in the following manner:
“Powerful warlords, commanders, politicians and other members of the elite often keep ‘bachas’ (boys) as a symbol of authority and affluence. Bachas, sometimes dressed as women, are often sexually exploited. They can also be used as dancers at private parties. Bacha bazi is not widely seen as homosexual behavior — popularly demonized as a deviant sexual act, prohibited in Islam — and is largely accepted as a cultural practice,” it stated.
Although the practice was banned while the Taliban ruled from 1996-2001, recently it has seen a resurgence. Afghanistan is now under democratic rule, but without enough emphasis on policy to tackle this issue, bacha bazi has mostly gone unpunished, especially in rural areas still considered Taliban strongholds where the boys, commonly between the ages of 10-18 and often illiterate, originate.
“The victims suffer from serious psychological trauma as they often get raped. 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 develops in their mind,” said a 2014 report from the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC).
As of February 2017, the government is finally recognizing what a problem this is and has committed to stricter penalties for those found engaging in the bacha bazi practice. This is good news for vulnerable young boys. It is the first time the country has seen new policy around this taboo issue, and punishments will be laid out in Afghanistan’s penal code, reports the AFP.
Perpetrators can expect anywhere from seven years in jail for sexual assault, to capital punishment for “aggravated cases” such as violating more than one boy.
“There is an entire chapter on criminalizing the practice (bacha bazi) in the new penal code. The code is expected to be adopted any time this month. This is going to be a significant step towards stopping this ugly practice,” said Nader Nadery, a senior advisor to President Ashraf Ghani.
The new chapter, titled “Driving Children Towards Moral Corruption” also includes an important clause stating victims of bacha bazi cannot be prosecuted as criminals which is a major step forward for a conservative country which has seen sexual assault victims face punishment.
What is most egregious about this heinous practice is that it is not limited to just extremist groups. The bacha bazi are commonly kept by police commanders, warlords, politicians and other members of the Afghan elite as a status symbol. The boys are dressed up in makeup and effeminate clothing and forced to dance and entertain their captors, along with the sexual abuse they face.
Activists in Afghanistan have been pushing for years to get a law passed punishing bacha bazi, but have previously been met with resistance from policymakers.
“I have received calls from MPs that say they will never let a bacha bazi law pass in parliament. This is a battle to save 21st century slaves,” said Soraya Sobhrang from the AIHRC.
Other groups say a law is a good start, but the real test will be seeing those in authority positions crack down on perpetrators and disrupt what is seen as a common cultural practice among some.
“Explicit criminalization in law of the heinous practice of bacha bazi is commendable, but implementation of laws in Afghanistan has been questionable. How is the government planning to monitor, investigate and hold accountable those responsible for abusing boys under this new legal provision?” asked a spokesperson from the All Survivors Project, a global fact-finding effort into sexual violence against males in conflict zones.
The June 2016 AFP report laid out how perpetrators are insulated from punishment due to institutional favor toward those in power.
“There is a gap and ambiguity in the laws of Afghanistan regarding bacha bazi and the existing laws do not address the problem sufficiently. Many of the perpetrators have connections with the security organs and by using power and giving bribes they get exempted from punishment,” it said.
A disturbing article in the New York Times from 2015 explained how US Forces have become part of the problem, albeit indirectly. Lance Cpl. Gregory Buckley Jr., a Marine based in Southern Afghanistan at the time, recalls hearing police officers sexually abusing boys, but was told by his superiors they were not to intervene or do anything about it.
He was told to “look the other way” because it was their culture, and these perpetrators were also the type of men who were then installed as community leaders by US forces which meant the practice continued to happen.
“The reason we were here is because we heard the terrible things the Taliban were doing to people, how they were taking away human rights. But we were putting people into power who would do things that were worse than the Taliban did — that was something village elders voiced to me,” said Dan Quinn, a former Special Forces captain who beat up an American-backed militia commander for keeping a boy chained to his bed as a sex slave.
Rape and assault are domestic issues in Afghanistan so outside forces do not have jurisdiction to intervene. But where rape is used as a weapon of war, they can. Yet, some of the American soldiers who did choose to speak out were silenced by those in command above them, as the issue of fighting the Taliban was much more pressing for the military. Other soldiers met entirely different fates.
“Lance Corporal Buckley and two other Marines were killed in 2012 by one of a large entourage of boys living at their base with an Afghan police commander named Sarwar Jan,” wrote Joseph Goldstein.
It is incredibly heartbreaking to read about the men who wanted to do the right thing by these minors being punished or killed. Yet it is some comfort to know the Afghanistan government is recognizing the widespread problem and the growing knowledge of it internationally. It’s one of the reasons we chose to write about this.
President Ashraf Ghani has been very vocal about championing the rights of women and girls under Afghanistan’s democratic rule, and these rights must also extend to every vulnerable member of society, including young boys. It is imperative that activist groups continue to keep pressure on authorities, policy-makers and the government to show that an addition to the penal code is not just lip service. Just as young girls deserve a life of equality and prosperity, so do young boys.