UN Fights To Stop Exploitation Of Afghan's 'Dancing Boys'

The war in Afghanistan has brought many of the cultural traditions there to light including a practice recognized as sexual slavery and child prostitution, particularly vulnerable exploitation of young boys by wealthy men. It's called "baccha bazi," which literally means "playing with boys." Host Michel Martin speaks with Radhika Coomaraswamy, the United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later in the program, not many people know Essence for its up-to-the-minute coverage of fashion and hair and culture. But in the November issue, the lifestyle magazine takes a fresh take on race in America. We'll hear from the editors in a few minutes.

But, first, we have one more story today that talks about efforts to improve the lives of kids. A few minutes ago we talked about efforts to tackle bullying in schools related to kids' sexual orientation. Next we go to Afghanistan, where activists are trying to take on an ancient practice that persists and some say is actually expanding as the conflict there grinds on.

Now, you may have heard reports that the Afghan government is seeking to end the war by negotiating with the Taliban. And the U.S. is facilitating such talks. In the West, a sub theme of the debate over the way forward has been, what about the women? Will the departure of Western troops consigned women and girls to lives even more constricted and more vulnerable to abuse than they have now?

But the focus on Afghanistan has also shed light on the way young boys have become vulnerable to exploitation. There's a specific practice called baccha bazi, which literally means playing with boys, that's come to light. It is a phenomenon of Afghan men using boys dressed up as women for entertainment. But advocates say these boys are also being used there for sex.

Joining us today to talk about this is one of the world's most vocal advocates for children's rights, Radhika Coomaraswamy. She is the United Nations' special representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict. And she joins us from the United Nations in New York. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. RADHIKA COOMARASWAMY (U.N. Special Representative, Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict): Thank you again for having me.

MARTIN: You were one of the first to speak publicly about this practice. How were you first exposed to this? And how do you understand this practice?

Ms. COOMARASWAMY: Well, actually, it was the religious leaders of Afghanistan, whom I met on a visit who pleaded with me to try and get intervention to stop this practice. Then when I met with NGOs, they also confirmed that such a practice exists. Strangely, the Taliban had actually eradicated the practice. But it had come back again and many of the warlords and commanders of the different groups were having baccha bazis.

MARTIN: Can you just describe for me, is this considered a long-standing cultural practice which has just come to light? Or is this something relatively new?

Ms. COOMARASWAMY: Well, you know, I don't know. I wouldn't term anything a cultural practice. But what it was is, as you know, even from ancient Greece that often where there were huge armies who were away from home for a long time, there was this practice of having boys. And I think that practice continues in some of the armies in central Asia. And so...

MARTIN: You mean boys - do you mind, I mean, not to put too fine a point on it, but sex slaves.

Ms. COOMARASWAMY: Yes. As entertainment, as well as sex slaves. So they do dancing. And some of them sing, maybe. But also as sexual partners. It is one thing that actually the religious leaders are against. And so there should be no excuse for this practice to continue.

MARTIN: The Afghan director Najibullah Quraishi offered a very rare glimpse into this issue in his movie "The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan." It's a film in which you also appeared. He talked to many men and boys about this. And here's a clip of the director as he's leaving the country and he's very upset because he is unable to help a boy that he met, whose name is Shafiq.

(Soundbite of film, "The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan")

Mr. NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI (Film Director, "The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan"): After we left Takhar, I felt terrible about Shafiq and all the other boys. But there seemed little we could do. And we had been warned that staging a rescue could put a boy in even more danger. It felt like we have all abandoned the boys of Afghanistan.

MARTIN: And I actually think American audiences might be familiar with this if they've seen the movie "The Kite Runner" or if they've read the book, "The Kite Runner," where this practice was alluded to. Is this something like a kind of an underground thing? You know, everybody knows that this goes on, but people just don't want to admit it because it's considered embarrassing or shameful, or is it a kind of thing that actually is practiced out in the open, but there's no mechanism to stop it?

Ms. COOMARASWAMY: It's practiced quite openly. And because there's impunity and nobody has been really taken to task or prosecuted, it continues. So we are pushing for prosecution. We feel if one or two cases are prosecuted, that sends a deterrent signal in saying this has to be stopped. At least we want to send a signal - strong signal that this will not be tolerated.

MARTIN: Is it your understanding that the sexual abuse part of this is part and parcel of this practice? Or is it ever the case that however humiliating, demeaning we may think it is to sort of force young boys to dress up as girls or as women, to dance for men and to sing and all that, that that's a different thing? I guess what I'm asking you is, is it generally understood that sexual abuse is part of this?

Ms. COOMARASWAMY: It is part, in some cases, it is not in others. But it is often a part of this. And, for example, what we have done is that we found out that Afghan national police, for example, that they recruit boys and a lot of the time these boys are also used for sexual activity. So we have now agreed with the government of Afghanistan to enter into an action plan to make sure that there are no children associated with the police. And I must say they have come forward on this issue, also with the help of international forces.

So we are about to sign that action plan where we would have unhindered access to police quarters so that we can check and see if there are children. So at least we're beginning in a small way with the police force.

MARTIN: How are these children brought into this practice?

Ms. COOMARASWAMY: Well, I think if you're a prominent warlord or someone very important in the region, you know, power is a magnet. So in some sense, sometimes boys are attracted. Sometimes the powerful people just go around and if they see a boy they'll ask for him. So I've not heard of cases where parents have given children. Usually if you are a warlord or someone of that power, wherever you go, you can ask for, well, something and it'll be given to you because people are frightened to cross your path.

MARTIN: But do the parents know that this is what awaits these children?

Ms. COOMARASWAMY: Often they do. But they're powerless.

MARTIN: And how do the children get out - how are they freed of this? Is it when they get to a certain age people are no longer interested in them? How does this work?

Ms. COOMARASWAMY: Yes. Well, you know, they get to a certain age and then sometimes they then join the police force or the warlord's army or whatever. And then they become abusers. You know, this is what happens in this kind of situation where they have then got used to a certain kind of sexual life and then they become abusers when they grow up. And so you have that kind of situation as well. Sometimes children do run away. But after a certain age they do go away.

MARTIN: Sometimes when you're outside of a country or culture and you call attention to something, like, say, female genital mutilation, people, say, well, mind your business. You know, that's not your culture. Just stay out of it. And is there anything that people who are outside of the culture can do to be helpful here?

Ms. COOMARASWAMY: You know, when that is said to us, that's said often in the field that I am in, the issue is that, first, all these countries are members of the United Nations. And the charter and all talk about fundamental rights and freedoms in which physical (unintelligible) and freedom from sexual violence are integral part.

Secondly, all these countries have signed many treaties and other standards in which they have agreed to these norms. So these are not norms that one part of the world is imposing. These are often norms that they have consented to, the government of Afghanistan has consented to these norms, first by joining the U.N., secondly by signing all these.

So therefore what we have to tell them is we're just helping you sign the norm - implement the norms that you yourself have committed yourself to.

MARTIN: Do you have any sense that you're making headway on this against this practice?

Ms. COOMARASWAMY: This particular practice I think has finally come out of -there's a spotlight on it now that your program is doing it. People are raising it now every time they meet. The minister of interior set up a woman who is now going to look into it.

But of course the problem is, you know, that there are really major players in the political scene in Afghanistan. So, you know, prosecuting them is like -it's like the corruption issue, you know, because prosecuting them has political consequences.

But we feel that if we shout long enough at least they may stop the practice, you know, at least overtly stop this practice.

MARTIN: Radhika Coomaraswamy is the special representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict. She joined us from the United Nations in New York. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. COOMARASWAMY: Thank you.

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