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by Heather Ware

A young male Afghan sex slave is dressed as a female and forced to pose for onlookers. Photo by Martin von Krogh.

When you think of child sex slaves, where do you think of? Thailand? Cambodia? Well it turns out that you can add one more country to that list as child sex slavery in Afghanistan, while only recently becoming known in the West, is rampant.

Known by the name bacha bazi (loosely translated as “playing with boys”), but also sometimes referred to as “chai boys”, or “dancing boys” these are children bought or kidnapped by powerful men. Some of you may have heard of the practice from its reference in the book The Kite Runner and thought that maybe the author was taking artistic license. Trust me, they’re very real. These boys are dressed as women, trained as personal servants, trained to dance and sing for the entertainment of their owner’s friends, used for sex and sometimes loaned or sold for sex as well. These boys are held against their will and are constantly under threat of violence if they try to escape. But when they get too old (their beard grows in), or their owner tires of them, they are tossed aside.

But why does such a practice exist in the conservative and religious Afghanistan? There are several reasons, including the prohibitive cost of marriage, the segregation of women, leading to the excuse that men want “a companion” that they can take with them anywhere. And while the women are required to be covered up from head to toe, the men say that at least they “can see which of the boys are beautiful.” In a sexually repressed country where even speaking to a woman who isn’t related to you is taboo and women are seen by fundamentalists as unclean, perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise.

A young male Afghan sex slave is forced to kiss an older man. Photo by Lorraine Venberg.

Keeping boys is also considered a marker of status. Powerful men in these areas can have whatever they want, and being able to keep the prettiest young boy to dance at parties and sexually service your friends is a sure way to cement their social standing.

Another element to consider is the poor economy coupled with large families/poor family planning, zero social services, and practically no law enforcement in Afghanistan, means that families may be more willing to take money for a boy (especially if it is a promised monthly stipend). If the boy is simply kidnapped his family has little or nothing they can do, especially if the kidnapper is a powerful local man such as a police commander or warlord.

But wait a minute, these people are Muslims and believe that being gay is against Islam, right? They seem to draw a distinction between gay love and gay sex. As long as they’re not in love they see no contradiction. Perhaps this is also to do with the fact that the victims are prepubescent and outwardly feminized – therefore not considered “men.”

The custom of keeping bacha bazi was banned under the Taliban and harshly punished, but it has unfortunately reemerged since the US invasion. No one quite knows when it began, but there is agreement that it has existed for many decades.

A young male Afghan sex slave dances for onlookers. Photo by Martin von Krogh.

One of the problems of prosecuting the perpetrators of bacha bazi is that it is so widespread and accepted that many of the members of the Afghan police and military own boys themselves. Two particular stories that gained mention in the world press are the 2012 killing of eight Afghan soldiers by a bacha bazi attempting to escape and a BBC reporter’s experience embedded with troops in Afghanistan, during which he saw four boys shot who tried to escape Afghan police commanders.

If you want more information I highly recommend you watch this documentary that was aired by Frontline on PBS and available online for free. It’s well worth watching for the insight into Afghan culture that shelters these horrific acts.

So what do you guys think? There are so many unforeseen consequences of any international action, as we can clearly see by this practice coming out of the shadows once again after the Taliban were removed from power. How can we save the boys of Afghanistan?