AFP has traced three former victims of “bacha bazi”, or the sexual exploitation of boys, whose testimonies lay bare one of Afghanistan’s most egregious human rights violations.
Here are some key answers about the abusive practice.
“Bachas” are boy sex slaves, often kept by powerful warlords, commanders, politicians and other members of the elite as a symbol of authority and affluence.
Sometimes dressed as women, they are often sexually exploited. They can also be used as dancers at private parties.
Bacha bazi, or “boy play”, is not widely seen as homosexual behaviour, which is popularly demonised and perceived as prohibited in Islam. Instead it is largely accepted as a cultural practice.
“Women are for child-rearing, boys are for pleasure” is a common saying across many parts of Afghanistan.
The custom, banned under the Taliban’s 1996-2001 rule, has seen a resurgence in recent years. It is said to be widespread across southern and eastern Afghanistan’s rural Pashtun heartland, and with ethnic Tajiks across the northern countryside.
HOW HAS IT BEEN ALLOWED TO FLOURISH?
The lack of contact with women in gender-segregated Afghanistan has contributed to the spread of bacha bazi, rights groups say.
Other factors such as an absence of the rule of law, corruption, limited access to justice, illiteracy, poverty, insecurity, and the existence of armed groups have also helped the practice spread, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) said in a report in 2014.
AIHRC points out that Afghanistan’s criminal law prohibits rape and pederasty, but so far there are no clear provisions on bacha bazi.
Bachas are typically aged between 10 and 18. Many of them are kidnapped, and sometimes desperate poverty drives their families to sell them to abusers.
“The victims of bacha bazi suffer from serious psychological trauma as they often get raped,” AIHRC’s report said.
“Such victims suffer from stress and a sort of distrust, hopelessness and pessimistic feeling. Bacha bazi results in fear among the children and feelings of revenge and hostility develop in their mind.”
Many victims are said to grow up to take bachas of their own, repeating the cycle of abuse.
WHAT IS BEING DONE ABOUT IT?
This year Afghanistan moved to criminalise bacha bazi for the first time, laying out penalties up to capital punishment in a revised penal code — but it has given no time frame over when they will be enforced.
Afghanistan also has a poor record of enforcing such provisions, especially when the perpetrators are powerful.
Many have connections with the security institutions, and use influence and bribes to get exempted from punishment.
The lack of enforcement means “the government is sending a very clear message: protection of children is a low priority,” said Charu Lata Hogg, a London-based fellow at Chatham House think tank.
The international community’s failure to act means it is “similarly prioritising security over the wellbeing of children,” she said.
HOW IS BACHA BAZI IMPACTING AFGHAN SECURITY?
AFP reported last year how the practice, institutionalised in security ranks, was helping the Taliban to infiltrate provinces such as Uruzgan, using bachas desperate for escape to kill hundreds of police.
The abusive tradition undermines support for NATO-trained Afghan forces, who had received more than $60 billion in assistance from the US as of 2015, according to Congress.
“Predatory sexual behaviour by Afghan soldiers and police could undermine US and Afghan public support for (Afghan forces), and put our enormous investment at risk,” Congress has stated.
Bacha bazi also helps fuels support for the austere Taliban and their bid to reassert sharia law in Afghanistan.
Such abuses by the mujahideen forces in the early 1990s are part of what helped sweep the Taliban to power, a Western official in Kabul told AFP.
“Similar behaviour of the government forces after 2001 is also helping to inspire the insurgency.”