How long does it take for someone to consider a widely known instance of systematic child rape to be a problem? Clearly it is not ten years because that is how long the West has known about the plight of Afghanistan’s boys.
I first wrote about the bacha bazi or dancing boys in 2007. Ten years later, there are still articles claiming that this situation is hidden. How could it possibly be hidden when I, a practical nobody who lives thousands of miles from Afghanistan, have read and heard about it every year for the past decade? “Hidden” is not the appropriate word. “Ignored” would be more accurate.
An article featured on the Hindustan Times covers the topic yet again, with much the same horrific details about the treatment of these boys by their community. From the article:
Adorned in makeup, fake breasts and bells, Jawed whirls around middle-aged men at Kabul’s underground bacha bazi, or “boy play” parties, where the former child sex slave finds freedom of sorts as a dancing boy.
Jawed was kidnapped by a former jihadi commander in Shomali, north of Kabul, when he was barely 14, a victim of a hidden epidemic in Afghanistan of culturally-sanctioned male rape.
He is one of three former “bachas” traced by AFP who managed to escape their abusers. Their testimonies shed searing light on the stolen lives of boy sex slaves, often seen as caricatures of shame and cast out of their families, with many like Jawed falling prey to a new cycle of abuse.
Four years after he was kidnapped, Jawed’s commander replaced him with a new boy slave, and “gifted” him to another strongman.
The 19-year-old says he escaped one night amid the chaos of a gunfight at a wedding where his new captor took him to entertain guests.
But dancing is the only skill he has that can earn a livelihood, having had no education and with virtually no protection offered in Afghanistan for bacha bazi survivors.
Now he performs for powerful male patrons at dance parties, where the evening often ends in sex — underlining how, even when they are free, victims struggle to break out of the role that has been forced on them.
“Fights usually break out over who will take me home” after the parties, 19-year-old Jawed told AFP, requesting that his real name not be revealed.
The bacha bazi goes back centuries in Afghanistan and is akin to Greek and Japan pederasty, at least in terms of the concept of the “relationships” between the boys and the men who abuse them. In practice, it is little more than sexual slavery, where pretty or effeminate boys are kidnapped, bought, or sold as playthings for Afghan warlords and officials. It is a well-known practice that Coalition forces encountered once they removed the Taliban from Afghanistan. The Taliban ironically put an end to the practice because they felt it violated Islamic doctrine. Yet once they were removed from power, the men who replaced them within the Afghan community went back to the practice within weeks.
That would be appalling enough, yet what makes it worse is that this occurred with the full knowledge of the Coalition forces. Indeed, there have been several reports (see the above link) to Canadian and US officials about the abuse, only for the soldiers reporting it to be reprimanded for not respecting the Afghan culture.
As for the boys, they are left social outcasts. They are not seen as men or women, but a complete embarrassment to the family’s honor:
“Family honour is like a glass of water. One speck of dirt ruins it,” said Aimal, a former bacha in his 30s who was abandoned by his parents. “If I were a woman, my family wouldn’t leave me alive.”
This shame leaves the boys with only one means of caring for themselves: continuing the abusive prostitution. Boys sell themselves to these men, and sometimes recruit or kidnap younger boys for these men to use and abuse. It becomes a cycle of victimization, one in which the boys have little means of breaking given that the government puts no bite behind its laws that supposedly protect boys from predators:
President Ashraf Ghani this year laid out stringent penalties against bacha bazi for the first time in a revised penal code, but the government has given no time frame over when they will be enforced.
Instead, authorities in February launched a massive raid on a bacha bazi party in Kabul, jailing not the organisers but a handful of dancing boys, multiple witnesses told AFP.
If that were not bad enough, the boys who need medical treatment face a host of burdens:
The shame also stalks parents who try to help their children, say medical professionals in southern Afghanistan who treat the brutally violated survivors.
“Increasingly parents will bring boys saying they have bowel problems,” said a surgeon in Helmand province, where bacha bazi is widespread, corroborating what two other health officials told AFP.
“But a closer examination shows the boys were raped and need to be stitched up. The parents break down in tears: ‘We want no publicity, just save my boy.’“
This is utterly insane. When people talk about “rape culture”, this is what an actual rape culture looks like. Here we have a society that goes out of its way to ignore child rape, shame the victims, and push the child’s family to cast them out rather than help them. Should the family attempt to help the boy, the family faces reprisal, often violent, as well as communal abandonment. They cannot even take their children to receive medical treatment without asking the doctors to keep it secret.
I do not expect the West to do anything about this. This is a cultural concept that likely will not change just because we put boots on the ground. However, I cannot imagine that this could occur on this scale for a decade and receive so little international attention and outrage had the targets been girls.
Yet because the victims are boys, no one cares. No one in the West is pushing for change. The United Nations is well aware of the situation, as are the top nations in the world, yet there is barely a syllable uttered about it. As for the progressives who claim to oppose “rape culture” and sexual violence, they could not care less. For the most part, they do not write or talk about this problem, and when they do the focus is solely on the gendered aspect of the abuse and sex segregation in the community, not that thousands of boys have been kidnapped, bought, and sold for rape.
Can we not muster just the tiniest bit of outrage over this? Is it right for these boys to have to turn to continuing to be raped in order to survive? We will do nothing?
The unfortunate answer appears to be yes. We will do absolutely nothing.