A glassy-eyed Afghan teenager sits mutely beside his father, hunched over a tray of tea and candy, unable to tell the painful story of how he was kidnapped by a policeman to be used as his sex slave.
He is among 13 families traced by AFP reporters who have suffered from “bacha bazi” — the institutionalised sexual enslavement of children by Western-backed Afghan forces. Here are some key answers about bacha bazi.
What is it?
Powerful warlords, commanders, politicians and other members of the elite often keep “bachas” as a symbol of authority and affluence.
Bachas, sometimes dressed as women, are often sexually exploited. They can also be used as dancers at private parties.
How common is it?
“Women are for child-rearing, boys are for pleasure” is a common saying across many parts of Afghanistan.
The ancient 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?
Tight gender segregation in Afghan society and lack of contact with women have contributed to the spread of bacha bazi, rights groups say.
Several 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 resulted in the spread of bacha bazi, 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 there are no clear provisions on bacha bazi.
Where do the boys come from? And what happens to them afterwards?
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 a feeling of revenge and hostility develop in their mind.”
In turn, many adolescent victims are said to grow up to have boy lovers of their own, repeating the cycle of abuse.
How is bacha bazi impacting Afghanistan’s security situation?
Bacha bazi is having a detrimental bearing on the perpetual state of conflict in Afghanistan, helping the Taliban to infiltrate security ranks in provinces such as Uruzgan, officials say.
The abusive practice in security ranks also undermines support for Nato-trained Afghan forces.
“To date, the US has provided over $60bn in assistance to the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF), including nearly $500m to the Afghan Local Police,” the US Congress said last year.
“Predatory sexual behaviour by Afghan soldiers and police could undermine US and Afghan public support for the ANDSF, and put our enormous investment at risk.”
The practice also continues to embolden the Taliban’s desire to reassert sharia law in Afghanistan and is fuelling their insurgency.