End Human Trafficking

Bacha Bazi: Afghan Tradition Expolits Young Boys

Published November 02, 2009 @ 06:00AM PT

Two subjects within the field of human trafficking are too often ignored: cultural traditions of slavery and the sale of boys in the commercial sex industry. CNN recently shed light on both of these in an article about the Afghan tradition of bacha bazi, or "boy play". It's a cultural tradition for many powerful Afghan men, but it's modern-day slavery for the boys who live through it.

Bacha bazi is illegal in Afghanistan, but the practice is still thriving. Boys are taken from their families at a young age and sold or given to wealthy and powerful business men, politicians, and military commanders. The boys are dressed in women's clothing and makeup and forced to dance to entertain their master and his guests. They are also forced to perform sex acts on their master or his guests.  The few boys who are able to escape their slavery have a difficult time ever making a living doing anything else. They are forever branded in society as a bacha bereesh, or a "boy without a beard," a boy who dances and dresses as a woman.

Their plight is not unlike that of women forced into sexual performance or prostitution, who also have a difficult time being accepted into society and finding work after their ordeal. Bacha bazi boys often return to the industry even after they have left, because they have no other means to support themselves. Women who have been forced into commercial sex often do the same. Perhaps so many similarities exist because bacha bazi feminizes these boys in order to degrade them. By forcing them to perform in women's clothes and by raping them, this tradition not only seeks to humiliate these boys for the pleasure of wealthy men, but also to reinforce the idea that women are inferior and for a boy to have feminine affectations is degrading for him. It's a window into the severe gender inequality that pervades Afghanistan.

What I found most interesting about bacha bazi is the prevalence of a tradition based around same sex rape and gender-bending performance in a severely homophobic country like Afghanistan.

I don't pretend to understand the disconnect that must occur in someone's mind to allow them to criminally prosecute individuals for identifying as LGBT or having a consensual same sex relationship and then forcing young boys into prostitution with grown men. My only guess is that the practice feminizes the boys so much, their abusers no longer view the sex act as taking place with a boy, but rather with a girl. But I would be interested to learn more about how this practice has come to thrive in a modern-day Afghanistan.

Human trafficking and modern-day slavery are often hidden behind the veil of cultural traditions, whether that's bacha bazi or servile marriage or debt bondage. But slavery has no place as a cultural institution in any society. We have won the battle to make slavery illegal in every country in the world. Now, comes the harder part, where we also must make is socially and culturally unacceptable. Otherwise, exploitative practices like bacha bazi will continue in shadow markets all over the world.

Photo credit: hamed masoumi

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Comments (1)

  1. Damaris Constantino

    Afghanistan was the last place in the world I thought this could happen...! I thought girls and women were the only victims in a country driven by radical men.

    My heart goes out for all the young boys living that hell.

    Sad, sad, sad!

    Posted by Damaris Constantino on 11/02/2009 @ 11:17AM PT

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Amanda Kloer

Amanda has been a full-time abolitionist for six years. During that time, she has created reports, documentaries and training materials on human trafficking in the United States and around the world.

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