The Palermo Protocol (the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children) concerns trafficking in persons, which means the abduction or receipt of persons, by means of the threat of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability for the purpose of exploitation, including the prostitution of others and other forms of sexual exploitation. Bacha bazi (bacha bosi, bachabozstvo, bachism, lit. “boy play”) falls squarely under this definition. As part of this tradition, which has existed since the Middle Ages in several Central and South Asian countries, adolescent boys entertain men by dancing for them in women’s clothing, jewelry, make-up, and sometimes even fake breasts. These dances are accompanied by musical instruments and songs, some about homosexual love. The “owner” can control and direct the boy himself or sell him to other men for dances and sex.
The practice of bacha bazi was widespread in western Turkistan under the Russian Empire and was even recorded in Soviet times until 1930. It still continues in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where this tradition has been on the rise over the past 20 years, especially in Pashtun regions in the south and east, and in the north, including among ethnic Tajiks. There is no explicit information that this form of child exploitation exists in Tajikistan, but human rights defenders believe that boys living in border regions are at risk considering the strong ties between Tajikistan and Afghanistan and the fact that ethnic Tajiks make up one-third of the population in northern Afghanistan. The situation for residents in southern Tajikistan is worsened by poverty and poor education combined with a fear of armed people who, at least in Afghanistan, abduct boys.
Paradoxically, homosexuality is censured in Central Asian and neighboring South Asian countries and is even criminalized in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. In the public’s mind, however, bacha bazi is not viewed as a manifestation of homosexuality and is justified as a cultural tradition.
The phenomenon of bacha bazi is inextricably linked to gender discrimination. The proscription on women appearing in public means that they are “replaced” with dancing boys. This has a negative impact on both of these vulnerable groups: Women continue to be excluded from public life, remain under lock and key, and regularly face humiliation and violence, while underage boys become sex objects for men, who see a woman’s role as perpetuating and serving the family.
A 2013 study by Hagar International found an extremely high rate of trafficking of boys in Afghanistan. Children over the age of 14 are more likely to be used for forced labor or as child soldiers, while boys under the age of 14 are more likely to be sexually exploited At least 50 percent of these children under 14 are the victims of Bacha bazi. Hundreds of YouTube videos with thousands of views are evidence of the prevalence of bacha bazi in Afghanistan. Amendments made to Afghanistan’s criminal code in 2017 banned this practice, setting punishments of up to three years in prison for the “owners” of dancing boys and up to 15 years in prison for members of the government complicit in the practice. However, there is only a very small chance that the guilty parties will be prosecuted, while some “bacha” themselves have faced criminal punishment.1European Asylum Support Office, “Country Guidance: Afghanistan,” June 2018, pg. 58, https://www.easo.europa.eu/sites/default/files/Country_Guidance_Afghanistan_2019.pdf
Bacha bazi is not just sexual exploitation of children and a means of earning money, but also a sign of status and wealth for men in high positions. Victims have stated that their abusers included many members of the government, the armed forces, and the police. In fact, these officials often strive to possess the most beautiful boys and are involved in child abductions. The change of power to more radical Islamic forces has done nothing to stop this tradition: Many people do not believe that sexual contact with boys is a manifestation of homosexuality and are stricter about bans on ties with women.
Years of armed conflict in Afghanistan have played no small role in aggravating the situation of boys: Many have been left without fathers and forced to take on the obligation to provide for their families. The general atmosphere of lawlessness and the numerous human rights violations that go hand in hand with war have also complicated the situation. Soldiers, who are not able to see their wives, regularly sexually exploit boys, and have in some cases used them to distract or even kill an enemy.
Boys also become “bacha” because of the terrible economic situation and their lack of education. Street boys from large and poor families are particularly vulnerable in this respect. Their parents sell them into sex slavery in return for a small amount of money, or the children themselves receive meager compensation, which they generally hand over to their families. Some continue to live at home, but most stay with their “owners” and cut most of their ties with their families. When children are abducted, their relatives either cannot find them or decide not to collect them because the owners might attempt to get them back or might even kill them for trying to escape.
But these aren’t the only cases where children’s lives and health are at risk. Even though some boys say that being a “bacha” is a good way to earn money, some who have had the courage and rare opportunity to talk with independent journalists and human rights defenders say that their entire lives are filled with regular sexual assault, beatings, and humiliation from the men they must serve and that they even fear losing their lives. Some boys who could not manage anymore have attempted suicide.
Young men can no longer be “bacha” when they reach the age of 18 to 20, but multiple psychological traumas prevent these grown “dancing boys” from leading a normal life. Some wealthy owners promise to arrange and pay for a marriage for the boys, thus lifting this burden from the parents or the boy himself. Other former owners may continue to support the boys, find them work, or ask them to train new “bacha.” If they have enough money when they stop dancing, some boys may start their own bacha bazi businesses, training boys they know personally and earning money on them, thus continuing this anachronism and recreating their own experiences. However, without the education, skills, or abilities they need to find work, most grown “bacha” remain on the street with broken emotional and sometimes physical health and no ties to their families. This forces some into the only available way to earn a living—prostitution.
Even boys in a favorable situation are at risk for sexual assault in Afghanistan. For example, in 2019 the public learned of hundreds of cases of rape committed by schoolteachers in one province and by the officials and police officers the boys turned to for help. At the same time, the normalization of sexual assault against boys is such that activists reporting on their independent investigations of these crimes have been prosecuted instead of the offenders, while the government has denied the problem. The victims did not receive assistance or support: In fact, there were reports that some boys were driven out of their families and even killed (possibly by the Taliban or relatives). On the one hand, then, society does not accept rape victims but, on the other hand, it does not view rape in the form of bacha bazi as rape and considers it a social norm.