KABUL, Afghanistan — In the book “The Kite Runner” a boy is dressed as a girl, has bells around his ankles, and is forced to wear make up and dance. To the reader, intrigue is sparked; why is a boy dancing while dressed as a girl? The answer is simple. Unfortunately, this boy is part of what is known as bacha bazi.
Bacha bazi, literally meaning “boy play,” is an unlawful practice in Afghanistan in which a boy is subject to dancing while dressed as a female and sexually abused by his master. These boys are nothing more than slaves, used only for entertainment and sexual purposes.
A practice used in ancient times, bacha bazi was reintroduced in the early 1980s when a civil war broke out. The warlords who initiated the war enslaved boys not only for pleasure, but also to show their power. High ranking officials in the military felt they had to have boys of their own, and abuse them, to be respected.
Once the Taliban came to power, the group outlawed the practice of bacha bazi as they had a great distaste for it. Although it was banned, the act of bacha bazi was still present throughout Afghanistan, yet only in secret locations.
When the Taliban was overthrown in 2001, bacha bazi was once again popularized throughout the country. Those in power began to find boys between 11 and 13 who were orphans or whose families were in need of money, and promised to teach them how to dance.
In 2010, PBS aired a Frontline documentary entitled “The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan” in which a journalist Najibullah Quraishi investigated the practice of bacha bazi. Through the film, the harmful abuse of boys is exposed countless times over, showing the boys being dressed as women, adorned with bells and performing for an audience of only males. It is after the performance that the men fight over who can take the boy home.
Although publicly government officials and police officers speak out against bacha bazi, it is known that these men have boys of their own. As displayed in the film, officers go to performances for their own viewing pleasure.
Perhaps the worst part about bacha bazi, is that the boys go into the practice blindly, thinking they are assuming an apprenticeship and providing money for their struggling families. Then, after countless counts of abuse and a final release from this slavery at 18, some boys end up joining the practice, hoping to become the master over boys of their own. This horribly abusive and damaging cycle seems to never end.
Radhika Coomaraswamy, former Under- Secretary- General of the United Nations, was one of the first international figures to speak out and tell the world about bacha bazi. In an interview, she gives her thoughts on how to end the practice:
“… To me, these kind of very exploitative practices have to be stopped first by deterrents and punishment. Secondly, I think we need to have a response to the children… that we give them support and help so that they can get out of these situations. And third is prevention. Prevention is to ensure that you fight poverty, that you have programs that keep children occupied and in school. You raise awareness among parents…”
– Kori Withers