DEHRAZI, Afghanistan – The 9-year-old boy with pale skin and big, piercing eyes captivated Mirzahan at first sight.
He is more handsome than anyone in the village, the 22-year-old farmer said, explaining why he is grooming the boy as a sexual partner and companion. There was another important factor that made Waheed easy to take on as a bacha bazi, or a boy for pleasure: He doesn’t have a father, so there is no one to stop this.
A growing number of Afghan children are being coerced into a life of sexual abuse. The practice of wealthy or prominent Afghans exploiting underage boys as sexual partners who are often dressed up as women to dance at gatherings is on the rise in post-Taliban Afghanistan, according to Afghan human rights researchers, Western officials and men who participate in the abuse.
Like it or not, there was better rule of law under the Taliban, said Dee Brillenburg Wurth, a child protection expert at the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, who has sought to persuade the government to address the problem. They saw it as a sin, and they stopped a lot of it.
Over the past decade, the phenomenon has flourished in Pashtun areas in the south, in several northern provinces and even in the capital, according to Afghans who engage in the practice or have studied it.
In its 2010 human rights report, the State Department said members of Afghanistan’s security forces, who receive training and weapons from the U.S.-led coalition, sexually abused boys in an environment of criminal impunity.
Boys who become bachas are seen as property, said Hayatullah Jawad, head of the Afghan Human Rights Research and Advocacy Organization.
Those who are perceived as being particularly beautiful can be sold for tens of thousands of dollars. The men who control them sometimes rent them out as dancers at male-only parties, and some are prostituted.
This is abuse, Jawad said. Most of these children are not willing to do this. They do this for money. Their families are very poor.
Although the practice is thought to be more widespread in conservative rural areas, it has become common in Kabul. Mohammed Fahim, a videographer who films the lavish weddings in the capital, estimated that one in every five weddings he attends in Kabul features dancing boys.
Afghan men have exploited boys as sexual partners for generations, people who have studied the issue say. The practice became rampant during the 1980s, when mujaheddin commanders fighting Soviet forces became notorious for recruiting young boys while passing through villages.
In Kandahar during the mid-1990s, the Taliban was born in part out of public anger that local commanders had married bachas and were engaging in other morally licentious behavior.
During the Taliban era, men suspected of having sex with men or boys were executed. In the late 1990s, the practice of bacha bazi went underground. The fall of the Taliban government in 2001 and the flood of donor money that poured into Afghanistan revived the phenomenon.