A Taboo Topic

April 20, 2010

Radhika Coomaraswamy is one of the first international figures to speak out against the practice of bacha bazi. She has served as United Nations’ undersecretary general, special representative for Children and Armed Conflict since 2006. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Sept. 18, 2009 by producer Jamie Doran.

Mrs. Coomaraswamy, you have just seen segments of our film. Give me your first reaction.

I was really quite horrified by the — at first I had heard about this practice. But I think the fact that these kids were killed, there’s another order of things. It’s not only sexual violence and sexual slavery; it’s also murder. So that shocked me.

What I think is very interesting for me is the casualness from which all of this was done. It’s an accepted practice. And of course, you hear about all these things theoretically, but when you see the faces of the actual kids, it’s really awful, heartbreaking.

Tell me where you first came across the practice of “bacha bazi” [literal translation: “boy play”] and what were the circumstances.

I never saw the practice. This is all through advocacy that I’ve heard this. I went to Afghanistan on a field visit to look at children in armed conflict, and some of the NGOs [non-governmental organizations] told me that this was a widespread practice among warlords.

So I checked around, and it seemed like a practice that at least had to be investigated. That is my line with the U.N.: Even if we don’t have hard-core evidence, at least I think the U.N. should do a study. And I’ve been pushing them to do a study, get down on record what is actually taking place.

But then I met a religious leader who also raised this issue — which is interesting, because with women’s issues, religious leaders are often on the other side — but with this issue he said: “We must do something. Please raise this issue.” So I decided to raise it even though it wasn’t in my original list of issues or my original agenda [when] I went to the country.

I understand that you have been quoted on numerous occasions talking about the taboo nature of this. Where did that come from?

Whenever I mentioned this topic to Afghans or even the diplomatic community, it was as if I had dropped a big brick, especially in … official circles. It was as if it was a subject that you don’t talk about. It was very clear to me — and someone actually said it to me — that these are not things that people talk about, so let’s first deal with the war, and then we will deal with these other issues. There would be complete silence in the room. Even when I mentioned it at my press conference, it was interesting: The journalists laughed nervously as if it was not something you would talk about.

“Where states fail and don’t provide services due to corruption or incompetence … there is nothing, nobody to protect these children.”

We managed to get access. But what was frightening was the levels of authority that this practice went up to– the chief of police is involved; there are policemen all around involved; there are warlords; powerful businessmen — and this is just in one area. Just how far does this go?

As I said, because it’s taboo, no one will talk to me about it directly, so what we need is the evidence. … And the only way to stop bacha bazi is if you prosecute the people who commit the crime, and that’s what we need, because the laws are there in the books against this practice. …

But no one is being prosecuted. We know that; you know that.

To some extent, we have this not only with this issue but even with sexual violence, where the Afghan criminal justice system is not working. Bacha bazi is just one of the many issues relating to sexual violence in which I think there is a problem.

Isn’t part of the problem the incredible poverty in Afghanistan?

To some extent, poverty in many of these very exploitative situations — whether it’s child soldiers, whether it bacha bazi, whether it’s girls as trafficked victims — that when people are poor, their children are very vulnerable. And you would have sometimes children going out and getting themselves voluntarily exploited, because then they get a free meal, they have structure in their lives, you know, because they’re not in school.

But the point that we raise often is that there is choice — the adults cannot take the children in when they come to them. Therefore, that’s why it’s a criminal act, whether it’s bacha bazi or child soldiers. And we have to stop the perpetrating of these acts and impunity for these acts. And if you do prosecute one or two [people], that’s deterrent enough; that sends a clear message. …

But isn’t it ridiculous that you have to put pressure to get one or two cases on an act that is clearly immoral and totally illegal?

… I’m not saying you should understand the situation, but I think the Afghan state structure really does not function. To some extent, because of all these years of warfare, … warlords run roughshod over whatever the central government will say. There is this whole issue of ensuring that the judicial system, the structure functions. So the prosecution has to be done in that context, I think.

How would you answer the many people who have said in this film, “Children were safer under the Taliban”?

I used to be a special rapporteur on violence against women, and in some ways children and women were safer, but because of the repression they were safer to some extent because they were kept at home. They wouldn’t be allowed out, and there was extreme policing. But I don’t think we need extreme policing. That’s not the solution, surely not. …

You need just a deterrence effect; that goes quite a bit of a way. If you prosecute a few people and you know that the law will be applied, that in itself, … it doesn’t stop it completely, but it does stop the casualness of it.

So I think we really have to push for this prosecution. And I would urge child protection advisers and people in Afghanistan who are with the U.N., etc., that they should push for prosecution.

Tell me, from the impression you got, just how widespread is bacha bazi in Afghanistan.

I got a sense that it was very widespread, from the NGOs that spoke to us, especially with men with power. So it’s a mark of, sometimes, your power, and I think that’s one of the reasons why it is also taboo in that sense.

But if you look at [it] historically also, it is a practice that maybe was there through the centuries not only in Afghanistan. The Greeks, they had dancing boys. … And it’s just now, you know, the time has come for us, like so many other practices throughout the world, where in the 21st century, we just can’t tolerate them anymore, and we have to make sure that they don’t happen.

Do you think any responsibility for combating bacha bazi lies with the international forces who, after all, are allowing warlords, especially in the north, to act with impunity?

… I think, to some extent, it would be most effective if it is done by Afghan people and Afghan processes. …

But I’m asking you, isn’t there a bit of a problem when these warlords are acting with impunity and are able to do so because, frankly, they were our allies against the Taliban?

You’re right. They [the international forces] should put pressure to help prosecute these warlords who are engaged in these practices, etc. Whether they would actually be able to do so, I don’t know. …

We spoke to young men who had been bacha bazi or “bacha bereesh” [literal translation: “boy without a beard”] before, and they spoke as if they really missed those times, because they had money, even a little money, and, if you like, [were] taken away from poverty and were able to give their family some money. And as soon as they turn 18, of course, it’s not interesting to these men anymore. …

Not only with bacha bazi but also with child soldiers, you’ll find they often say, “It was much better when we were with the armed forces because we were fed; our families were taken care of; there was a role; there was a status.” Especially if you are bacha bazi to a very powerful man, … you can go to all of the best hotels; you get fed; you get taken around in cars. There is a status change. … So one cannot rely on the child itself, because they come from a life of dire poverty to suddenly being taken care of by a powerful person. …

Anyway, it’s a form of slavery, taking a child, keeping him. It’s a form of sexual slavery. And to some extent the poverty, the child may think that this is a reality that is better. We have to ensure that we take them out of that reality because it’s terribly exploitative of them.

But then comes the question that also begs all of us: Once you have taken children out of these realities, … what do you do? You can’t just let them become street children again. So the whole process of reintegrating them back to their families, communities, giving them skills so that they can have another livelihood, all that becomes also important when you deal with victims of this kind of violence.

Now, you’ve spoken of the need for authorities to take action of some kind. What do you think their reaction will be when we show them this film? Because you have made the point previously about this being a taboo subject. But this is it — it’s out in the open now.

… But to be honest, it’s never denied. At no point do they say that this doesn’t happen. It’s just a kind of “Let’s not talk about it,” you know. It’s a taboo subject.

That’s the point I’m making: that they can sweep it under the carpet, but now they can’t.

No, they can’t, and they shouldn’t. And also, there [are] a lot of very strong civil society groups. I said the groups that brought this to my attention were Afghan NGOs, who I think should be strengthened to raise this issue and to not allow it to be put under the carpets.

All … these practices we’ve had, especially in South Asia, which shock the conscience, it’s mobilizing against them — that and penalizing these practices. That has been an important part in these civil movements as well. So I think this film will give strength to those people in Afghanistan who want to do something about this, … as well as activists all over South Asia.

Final question. It’s a repeat of a previous question: How can it be stopped?

… To me, these kind of very exploitative practices have to be stopped first by deterrents and punishment. Secondly, I think we need to have a response to the children, … that we give them support and help so that they can get out of these situations. And third is prevention. Prevention is to ensure that you fight poverty, that you have programs that keep children occupied and in school. You raise awareness among parents. …

But because of this terrible armed conflict in Afghanistan, those things cannot be done still, so you have to only rely on the deterrents and punishment.

It’s a disgusting practice.

It’s disgusting practice. You saw that boy’s face, that first one that was taken in that car and that complete trusting innocence. It’s just absolutely horrific.

Originally published April 20, 2010

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