Activists are calling on the Afghan government to enact a new law against the sexual exploitation of children.
The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) is calling on President Ashraf Ghani to pass a new law that would specifically ban and criminalize the practice of bacha bazi.
Literally translated as “boy play,” the term collectively denotes exploitative practices ranging from sexual slavery to forcing boys to dress as women and amuse men by dancing.
"It's a form of sexual slavery in the 21st century,” said Soraya Sobhrang, a member of the AIHRC. “Bacha bazi is an umbrella under which all kinds of heinous immoral and inhumane acts are carried out. It is typically marked by [men] keeping underage boys for [sexual exploitation and entertainment for] a long period of time."
Sobhrang expressed hope that Ghani would issue the decree in the next month to ban child sexual exploitation in the country.
"We must have a law to ban bacha bazi,” she emphasized. Sobhrang is leading the push by activists to lobby government officials and lawmakers for the law.
Sobhrang said that during her recent nationwide research on the issue, she discovered that practices labeled as bacha bazi were growing at an alarming rate.
She added that sexual abuse and harassment, rape and gang rape, the buying and selling of pubescent boys, and forcing them to dance in parties while dressed as women -- all seen as bacha bazi -- are widespread.
Sobhrang said the victims of bacha bazi, often 10- to 16-year-olds, are typically lured by promises of jobs and money.
She added that "irresponsible armed gangs" -- a euphemism for some of Afghanistan’s notorious warring factions and their offshoots -- are mainly involved in bacha bazi.
"Many who have money, guns, position, and power are keeping three to four handsome boys,” she said. “They hold parties and even gang rape these boys. They buy and sell these boys and take them from one province to another."
Because of local sensitivities, however, Sobhrang, refused to name names or identify the provinces where the practice is most widespread.
She said a lack of a proper law to define and penalize bacha bazi and weak government authority in some areas of Afghanistan are among the main reasons for its rise and geographic spread.
She added that there is no accurate data available on the overall number of boys being sexually exploited in Afghanistan mainly because the victims are reluctant to disclose their identity.
Bacha bazi is now reportedly used by the Taliban to infiltrate the ranks of Afghan police to launch insider attacks.
General Ghulam Sakhi Rogh Lewanai, former police chief in Uruzgan, said Taliban insurgents are using underage boys to infiltrate the ranks of the police in the volatile southern province.
Lewanai said three to four underage boys were placed in 305 security posts out of a total of 375 security posts in Uruzgan and that police commanders and soldiers were engaged sexually abusing them.
"Those boys were in touch with the Taliban. They used to poison the food of police officers and also attacked them while they were asleep using their own weapons,” he said. “Several [dozens of] security posts in Deh Rawud, Khas Uruzgan, Eshpeloq, and Char Chino districts were attacked, and hundreds of police officers were killed."
The Taliban, however, have strongly denied such claims. Under their hard-line regime, in power from 1996 to 2001, bacha bazi was banned. People convicted for engaging in it were publicly executed by being buried under a mud wall.
The spokesman for the Interior Ministry, Siddique Siddiqi, told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website that authorities are investigating the sexual abuse of children after the Afghan president ordered such a probe late last month.
"It is important to investigate the phenomenon which is considered a crime for Afghanistan's police," he said. "We have investigated some instances in the past, and now we are committed to cleansing our police from this phenomenon."
Afghanistan's criminal law, however, still lacks specific punishment for the practice of bacha bazi.
According to Said Mohammad Hashemi, the Afghan deputy justice minister, for first time in 30 years they have prepared the Child Rights Protection Act in which the practice of bacha bazi is considered a crime and punishable by imprisonment and heavy fines.
"I think the demands of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission are legitimate and valuable," he said. "The terrible abuse of children needs to end."