The longstanding practice of ritualized sexual violence against young boys — bacha bazi (literally, “boy play”) — was slowly reinstated after the fall of the Taliban, which had taken a hardline stance against the practice by banning it in the parts of the country that they controlled. The practice has been long condemned by human rights groups that have demanded more action to address (amongst other issues) the stigma and alienation faced by former bachas and the widespread nature of the practice.
The recent revelation that United States troops were instructed to ignore incidents of grave sexual abuse of young boys by their Afghan allies, further highlights the power dimensions of this institutionalized practice.
The allegations, as reported in the New York Times, concern the inducement of troops to ignore evidence of sexual abuse, with troops being urged or coerced to not report incidents that they observed. Troops were instructed that the practice was “cultural,” and soldiers who took initiative in acting against the perpetrators of the sexual abuse were punished, with reports of officers being “forced out” as a result of their actions.
The perpetrators of the violence and abuse are often powerful army commanders and warlords who are supporters and allies of the United States’ mission in Afghanistan, which presents an uncomfortable power dynamic. These men arguably form the backbone of support for the stability and legitimacy of the Afghan government by driving the Taliban out of the war-torn country.
The allegations which are supported by evidence of the widespread and pervasive nature of bacha bazi within Afghanistan since the end of Taliban rule, undermine the legitimacy of an Afghan government and nation which is built upon the actions and support of depraved and powerful commanders, who indiscriminately abuse children.
The legitimacy of the U.S. and its role in moving Afghanistan towards a stable and functioning government after decades of political instability and conflict is also undermined by the suggestion that it has condoned, through silence, the abuse and rape of young boys.
The Afghan president expressed an unequivocal commitment on the part of the Afghan government to crack down on the practice and prosecute the perpetrators; however, the feasibility of addressing the practice holistically is uncertain, especially considering the wealth, prominence and political clout of most perpetrators.
For the past couple of weeks, increased attention and concern has been expressed at the exposure of the unwillingness of the United States military to address the pervasive nature of this vile practice. The institutionalization of a policy of ignorance and negligence towards the welfare of young boys within the United States military is a huge cause for concern.
Only through continuous global focus can substantive action and reform be enacted. It is necessary to maintain awareness of the practice of bacha bazi, and ensure that the current opportunity of global focus and attention is actualized into the movement towards cultural change within Afghanistan.
Written by Sahra Magan