“We could hear the boys screaming at night, but we are not allowed to do anything about it.” These were the words of Lance Corporal Gregory Buckley Jr. who overheard Afghan police officers abusing young boys in a practice referred to as bacha bazi while he was deployed in Afghanistan with the U.S Military in 2012. Although this issue has been somewhat addressed in the seven years since LCpl Buckley Jr. voiced his concerns, this practice persists in every province of Afghanistan. The European Union must redouble their efforts to combat these abuses and not allow the exploitation of these boys to be overshadowed by issues that are more prominent to the eye of the international community.
Bacha bazi means “boy play” in Dari and involves the molestation of young boys between the ages of ten and eighteen by powerful and wealthy Afghan men. These boys are forced to dance at private parties and are often coerced into having sexual relationships with their masters. The horrors that these boys face do not stop there. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission reports that the victims are subjected to beatings which result in broken teeth, fractures, internal bleeding, and sometimes even death. The fact that the young boys involved in bacha bazi face such torturous conditions, compounded with the fact that they are often recruited under the false pretence of a job before being handed over to their new masters by their unknowing parents, makes this practice fall within the category of human trafficking.
According to the United States Bureau of International Labor Affairs, the perpetrators of the practice of bacha bazi include members of the Afghan local, national, and border police as well as tribal and armed militia leaders who use their influential positions to evade punishment. The involvement of such individuals has resulted in a convoluted web of impunity. High-ranking leaders have been known to bribe law enforcement officials to “look the other way” instead of initiating prosecution for a crime that the law officials are committing as well. Tackling this impunity must be at the forefront of priorities when attempting to implement criminal justice reforms in the country, which the EU recently announced they will spearheading. One way that the EU can accomplish this is by increasing the training of judicial officials on the prohibition of the use of mediation for sex trafficking crimes like bacha bazi as a part of their plan to boost institutional capacity. Mediation continues to be used as a method of resolution that greatly contributes to the culture of impunity surrounding this practice.
The work of the EU, in collaboration with the judicial system of Afghanistan, must also seek to spread awareness about bacha bazi, since the young boys involved are often not treated as victims but are instead jailed for “prostitution” or “sex outside of marriage”. To make matters worse, there have also been cases of the victims being forced to commit sexual favours for the prosecutors or investigators that are working on their cases. The narrative of victims being viewed as the perpetrators has created a cycle of abuse from which the young boys involved can find no respite. The EU must work to change this.
Another way that the EU can help break the cycle of abuse, and protect the victims of bacha bazi in the process, is through the establishment and proper allocation of funds for shelters specifically for male trafficking victims. There is a serious need for shelters in general in Afghanistan, especial shelters specifically designated for the purpose of rehabilitation of male victims, as there are shockingly few currently in operation. These shelters are vital, not only because they can provide a safe haven for victims that have escaped their captors but because they can also provide educational and job training services. Many young boys who have previously been involved in bacha bazi never find another way to provide for themselves due to not having learned any valuable skill set. This leaves them highly vulnerable to being forced to return to dancing in the future. This is something that the EU cannot allow. Returning to a torturous and abusive situation should never have to cross the minds of individuals who have successfully escaped human trafficking. The EU can help ensure that a way out is always available to these boys.
Eliminating human trafficking is a goal that is mentioned in three of the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals and ending the “abuse, exploitation, trafficking, and all forms of violence against and torture of children” is a goal mentioned in SDG 16.2. These goals cannot be reached unless the practice of bacha bazi is completely extinguished. Bacha bazi is not a custom and it is not a tradition, it is an abhorrent form of human trafficking, and the European Union has the leverage and the influence to end it.