KABUL -- Afghanistan is set to criminalise the practice of "bacha bazi" -- sexual exploitation and abuse of boys -- with a slew of stringent punishments laid out for the first time in a revised penal code, AFP reported Wednesday (February 22).
The move comes after a report last year revealed that the Taliban were exploiting rampant bacha bazi among police ranks to mount deadly insider attacks, exposing a hidden epidemic of kidnapping of young boys for institutionalised sexual slavery.
The revelations intensified longstanding demands by campaigners for Kabul to enact an incisive legal provision to curb bacha bazi -- literally "boy play" -- which has seen a resurgence in post-Taliban Afghanistan.
A raft of punishments will now be listed in Afghanistan's revised penal code -- from up to seven years in jail for sexual assault to capital punishment for "aggravated cases" such as violating more than one boy.
"There is an entire chapter on criminalising the practice in the new penal code," Nader Nadery, a senior adviser to President Ashraf Ghani, told AFP.
"The code is expected to be adopted any time this month. This is going to be a significant step towards stopping this ugly practice."
A draft of the chapter seen by AFP, titled "Driving children towards moral corruption", also states that bacha bazi victims cannot be prosecuted, a significant caveat in a nation where sex assault victims often face punishment.
Afghanistan's criminal law previously only prohibited pederasty and sex outside of marriage, which rights campaigners said did not sufficiently address the problem of bacha bazi.
Aside from police commanders, warlords, politicians and other members of the Afghan elite often keep "bachas" as a symbol of authority and affluence.
The young boys, sometimes dressed effeminately with makeup and bells on their feet, can be used as dancers at private parties and are often sexually exploited.
Bacha bazi is not widely seen as homosexual behaviour -- popularly demonised as a deviant sexual act, prohibited in Islam -- and is largely accepted as a cultural practice.
"Women are for child-rearing, boys are for pleasure" is a common saying across many parts of Afghanistan.
The ancient custom, banned under the Taliban's 1996-2001 rule, is said to be widespread across southern and eastern Afghanistan's rural Pashtun heartland, and with ethnic Tajiks across the northern countryside.
'21st century slaves'
Before the penal code, activists pushed for years for special legislation on bacha bazi, with scant hope of getting it through parliament as they suspect the practice is prevalent among lawmakers themselves.
"I have received calls from MPs that say they will never let a bacha bazi law pass in parliament," said Soraya Sobhrang from the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. "This is a battle to save 21st century slaves."
The penal code is likely to be passed by presidential decree during the on-going parliamentary recess. But Sobhrang worries that some lawmakers may try to water it down when it is later subjected to a parliamentary review.
Afghanistan has a poor record of enforcing similar provisions, including a law to eliminate violence against women and another to ban the recruitment of child soldiers, especially when the perpetrators are powerful.
Tight gender segregation in Afghan society have contributed to the spread of bacha bazi, rights groups say.
Several other factors such as an absence of rule of law, corruption, limited access to justice, illiteracy, poverty, insecurity and the existence of armed groups have also helped the practice spread, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) said in a 2014 report.
Bachas are typically aged between 10 and 18. Many of them are kidnapped and sometimes desperate poverty drives their families to sell them to abusers.
Powerful officials connected
Critics have said there appears to be no will to act against abusive security officials involved in the practice.
But growing public scrutiny of the practice, once shrouded in shame and silence, is forcing authorities to act in some areas.
Earlier this month, the government sacked Shah Mirza Panjsheri, police chief of Dasht-i-Archi District in northern Kunduz Province, after a video of his "bacha bazi party" surfaced on social media.
"He was kidnapping young, beautiful boys and forcing them to dance in bacha bazi gatherings," a Kunduz government spokesman told AFP.
"When we heard about this, we dismissed him immediately," he said, adding that Panjsheri was the first high-ranking police official in Kunduz to be sacked for this practice.
Impact on security
Bacha bazi is having a detrimental bearing on the perpetual state of conflict in Afghanistan, helping the Taliban to infiltrate security ranks in provinces such as Uruzgan, officials say.
The abusive practice in security ranks also undermines support for NATO-trained Afghan forces.
"To date, the US has provided over $60 billion in assistance to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), including nearly $500 million to the Afghan Local Police," the US Congress said in 2015.
"Predatory sexual behaviour by Afghan soldiers and police could undermine US and Afghan public support for the ANDSF, and put our enormous investment at risk."
The practice also continues to embolden the Taliban's desire to reassert sharia law in Afghanistan and is fuelling their insurgency.
"Such wild abuses of the predatory mujahideen forces in the early 1990s drove the popularity of the austere Taliban, helping them sweep to power across most of the country," a Western official in Kabul told AFP. "Similar behaviour of the government forces after 2001 is also helping to inspire the insurgency."