Bacha Bazi, literally translated as “child play,” is the slang term used for the sexual activities between boys and older men in Afghanistan.

Pederasty has been practiced throughout Central Asia for centuries and Bacha Bazi has been practiced in Afghanistan since the 1800s. Bacha Bazi was common during the Soviet invasion and the following civil war in the 1980s. Once the Taliban consolidated power after defeating opposing factions in the civil war, they outlawed the sexual exploitation of boys in the 1990s. The practice returned after the Taliban lost power in 2001. The boys typically range in age from prepubescent to young adult men.  These arrangements occur between rich men and impoverished children throughout Afghanistan and include a range of sexual services from dancing to pornography to sex. The boys are oftentimes pimped out as entertainment for parties of adult men. Sometimes the boys are sold into Bacha Bazi by their families; on other occasions they are kidnapped. Regardless, they generally come from vulnerable and impoverished circumstances. Some of the men who take on boys as Bachas are not attracted to women or do not want the added expense of taking on a wife and future family. The boys are considered property to be bought, sold, rented, or traded. Once the boys reach a certain age they are often cast aside. Some are lucky enough to find jobs but many are social outcasts due to the stigma of sexual abuse. Many of the boys become pimps or prostitutes for a lack of other vocational options. The boys receive little if any protection from the Afghan judicial system. They are prime targets for prosecution as the practice is not legal. The Afghan dancing boys’ dilemma has received international attention, but the enforced entertainment and sexual slavery continues unhindered.

Bacha Bazi is a form of human trafficking as defined by the UN resolution Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others (“UN Convention on Traffic in Persons”). The UN Convention on Traffic in Persons has been in effect since 1951 and clearly states, “Whereas, with respect to the suppression of the traffic in women and children, the following international instruments are in force:…Article 1 The Parties to the present Convention agree to punish any person who, to gratify the passion of another: (1) Procures, entice or leads away, for purposes of prostitution, another person, even with the consent of that person.” Article 34 (b) of the UN Convention on Traffic in Persons prohibits the inducement or coercion of a child to engage in unlawful sexual activity, in prostitution, or in pornographic performances and materials. Afghanistan has yet to ratify the UN Convention on Traffic in Persons, so it cannot be bound by its requirements.

Afghanistan has ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution, and child pornography. The UN formed an agreement with Afghanistan in 2011 to end the recruitment and sexual exploitation of Afghan dancing boys, but five years later the Afghan government has yet to take action on this issue. Child molestation is an illegal practice within Afghanistan, and the Afghan government has promised to protect the rights of these children.

The Afghan government needs to ratify the UN Convention on the Traffic in Persons. They need to fulfill their legal obligations under the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is the responsibility of the international community, nation-states, and human rights and civil rights organizations to hold Afghanistan accountable for the continuation of Bacha Bazi.

In 2015, it became public knowledge that the U.S. military told American soldiers to ignore the pedophilia of its Afghan allies. In response, the Defense Department’s Office of the Inspector General opened an investigation into whether U.S. soldiers were discouraged from reporting the rape and sexual abuse of children by their Afghan allies. The rumors were validated, finding that some soldiers were even punished for disobeying what they said was an unwritten rule in the military to ignore the abuse. Former Captain Dan Quinn was relieved of his Special Forces command after a fight with a U.S.-backed Afghan militia leader who had a boy chained to his bed. In an effort to focus only on fighting the Taliban it became wide-spread military policy to ignore child molestation and chalk it up as a part of Afghan culture. Soldiers were told to ignore it, even when they could hear children screaming. American soldiers were  training Afghan militia in opposition to the Taliban and in doing so supporting traditional practices of child molestation.

Today Bacha Bazi is not allowed on any of the few remaining U.S. military bases in Afghanistan. The U.S. military discharged any Afghan ally caught participating in Bacha Bazi entertainment. The practice of Bacha Bazi has not been addressed by the Afghan government or directly condemned by the U.S. government. As the remaining U.S. military bases are turned over to Afghan army or police forces, there is little chance that this practice will be addressed in the near future. Bacha Bazi is a blatant violation of children’s rights. The U.S. government has a unique opportunity to pressure Afghanistan to enforce the prohibition of Bacha Bazi. This requires the U.S. government to take a position on this issue and use that position to hold the Afghanistan government accountable.  Respecting cultural practices is one thing, but when doing so has allowed even supported gross travesties of human rights violations in Afghanistan, there is a need for immediate action. The American public needs to weigh in on this issue, bringing focus to the U.S. government’s responsibility to further prohibit the practice Bacha Bazi on American bases and by Afghan contractors and sub-contractors. The international coverage has been the equivalent of a limited scandal. International human rights and civil rights organizations need to bring the attention of the world to the issue in an effort to end Bacha Bazi in Afghanistan. Additional follow-up is needed to ensure that in the next few years the practice is severely diminished if not ended completely. It is only through the confluence of law and policy that this illegal practice will finally be ended. A country trying to gain its political and economic independence will do well to eradicate practices that prey upon and injure future leaders.