State Department: Sexual Abuse of Boys on the Rise in Afghanistan

Melanie Arter | March 19, 2014 | 1:57pm EDT
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Sayed Mustafa, 2, poses for photograph, near a mosque, a day ahead of Ashura in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

( – The State Department in its 2013 human rights report on Afghanistan said the sexual abuse of boys, or bacha baazi, is on the rise in the region, with the practice becoming common in Kabul.

“The practice of ‘bacha baazi’ (dancing boys) – which involved powerful or wealthy local figures and businessmen sexually abusing young boys who were trained to dance in female clothes – was on the rise,” the State Department said in its human rights report.

The report noted an increase in rapes during the year, with most victims being children. In fact, sexual abuse of children reached an all-time high, according to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC).

“Although pornography is a crime, child pornography is not specifically prohibited by law. Exploiting a child for sexual purposes, as was done with bacha baazi, also was widespread but not specified as a crime under the law,” the State Department noted in its report.

“Although the practice was believed to be more widespread in conservative rural areas, at least one media report alleged that it had become common in Kabul. Media reports also alleged that local authorities, including the police, were involved in the practice, but the government took few steps to discourage the abuse of boys or to prosecute or punish those involved,” the human rights report said.

An Oct. 28, 2013 article by Foreign Policy magazine said bacha baazi, or sexual abuse of boys, “has grown more rampant since 2001” when the Taliban was ousted.

“The Taliban had a deep aversion towards bacha bazi, outlawing the practice when they instituted strict nationwide sharia law,” the article said, adding that “one of the original provocations for the Taliban’s rise to power in the early 1990s was their outrage over pedophilia.”

“Once they came to power, bacha bazi became taboo, and the men who still engaged in the practice did so in secret,” FP reported. “When the former mujahideen commanders ascended to power in 2001 after the Taliban’s ouster, they brought with them a rekindled culture of bacha bazi. Today, many of these empowered warlords serve in important positions, as governors, line ministers, police chiefs, and military commanders.”

The article referred to a 2009 Human Terrain Team report titled, “Pashtun Sexuality,” which said bacha bazi is not considered “un-Islamic or homosexual at all” according to Pashtun social norms.

The report was done by the U.S. Army and is comprised of personal field notes dated May 15, 2009 by Human Terrain Team AF-6, which was assigned to the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Battalion and co-located with British forces in Lashkar Gah. It was requested to provide insight into Pashtun cultural traditions regarding male sexuality.

‘Women are for children, boys are for pleasure’

The 2009 Human Terrain Team report noted that “one of the country’s favorite sayings is ‘women are for children, boys are for pleasure.’”

Homosexuality is strictly prohibited in Islam. “To identify as such is to admit an enormous sin in Islam – one punishable by death under the Taliban and one that would result in severe tribal and familial ostracization today,” the report said.

However, “even men who practice homosexuality exclusively are not labeled by themselves or their counterparts as homosexual.” Therefore, “it appears to be the label, not the action or the preference, that poses the greatest problem.”

Homosexuality is defined – “narrowly and specifically” – as the love of another man, the HTT report said.

“Loving a man would therefore be unacceptable and a major sin within this cultural interpretation of Islam, but using another man for sexual gratification would be regarded as a foible – undesirable but far preferable to sex with an ineligible woman … which would likely result in issues of revenge and honor killings,” the Army’s report added.

The report noted that in Pashtun society, access to women is “extremely limited.”

“Heterosexual relationships are only allowable within the bounds of marriage, and Pashtun honor demands that a man be able to demonstrate his ability to support a wife and family, as well as produce abundant wedding-gifts for the bride and her parents, before he is allowed to marry,” it said.

“Therefore, given the economic situation of most young Pashtun men and the current state of employment and agriculture within the Pashtun regions of Afghanistan, marriage becomes a nearly unattainable possibility for many,” it added.

The report noted a cyclical effect when young boys are sexually abused.

Many of them spend their “formative years” in Taliban madrasas (Islamic religious school), where they miss out on a mother’s influence. “Women are foreign, and categorized by religious teachers as, at best, unclean or undesirable,” the HTT report said.

“It is then probable that the male companionship that a boy has known takes a sinister turn, in the form of the expression of pedophilia from the men that surround him. Such abuse would most likely result in a sense of outrage or anger, but anger that can not possibly be directed at the only source of companionship and emotional support a boy knows, and on which he remains dependent,” it said.

“This anger may very well be then directed at the foreign object – women – resulting in the misogyny typical of Pashtin Islamism. Men and boys therefore remain the object of affection and security for these boys as they grow into men themselves, and the cycle is repeated,” the unclassified report said.

It concluded that such a cycle affects both males and females and “leads to violence against women and women’s suppression in Pashtun culture.”

“If women are no longer the source of companionship or sexual desire, they become increasingly and threateningly foreign,” adding to the cycle of “male isolation from women.” asked the State Department to confirm and explain the correlation between the practice of bacha baazi and the Taliban while the Taliban was in power in Afghanistan.

The State Department responded, saying, “As noted in the report, Afghanistan has made important human rights achievements in the past 12 years, but more work remains to be done to protect and expand on the gains made since 2001. The overall human rights satiation in Afghanistan remained poor.

“The Taliban and other insurgents killed record numbers of civilians and pursued targeted killings of persons affiliated with the government. Widespread disregard for the rule of law and official impunity for those who committed human rights abuses were serious problems, and the government did not prosecute abuses by officials consistently and effectively,” it added.

“The United States continues to provide diplomatic and programmatic support to Afghanistan, including to civil society and human rights actors, as Afghanistan seeks to build a stable, prosperous, and democratic future. Our support includes building civil society’s capacity to defend against a rollback of critical human rights gains,” the State Department concluded.

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