July 7, 2008 / 7:02 PM / 11 years ago

U.N. envoy denounces hidden abuse of Afghan boys

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Afghanistan must do more to end an age-old practice of young boys being kept as sex slaves by wealthy and powerful patrons, the U.N. special representative for children and armed conflict said on Monday.

Radhika Coomaraswamy said the practice, called “bacha bazi” — literally “boy play” — was a taboo subject, but she had heard reports of warlords and military commanders keeping young boys and “exploiting them in terrible ways.”

“What I found was nobody talks about it; everyone says ‘Well, you know, it’s been there for 1,000 years so why do we want to raise this now?’” she told a news conference at U.N. headquarters, reporting on a visit to Afghanistan last week.

“That seems to be the general attitude among everyone, but somebody has to raise it and it has to be dealt with.”

Known as “bacha bereesh,” boys without beards, the victims of such abuse are teenage boys who dress up as girls and dance for male patrons at parties in northern Afghanistan.

“We feel that a campaign should be run to raise awareness about this issue and to stop this practice,” she said.

“We talk about sexual violence against girls and women, which is also terrible, but this hidden issue of sexual violence against boys should also be dealt with seriously.”

Afghan police have tried to crack down on the practice and Islamic clerics say those involved should be stoned for sodomy, which is forbidden under Islamic law.

In a society where the sexes are strictly segregated, it is common for men to dance for other men at weddings in Afghanistan. But in northern Afghanistan, former warlords and mujahideen commanders have taken that a step further, sometimes taking the boys as “mistresses.”

Police and security officials in northern Afghanistan say they have been doing their best to arrest the men involved.

“It is sad to state that this practice that includes making boys dance, sexual abuse and sometimes even selling boys, has been going on for years,” General Asadollah Amarkhil, the security chief of Kunduz province, told Reuters last year.

“We have taken steps to stop it to the extent that we are able,” he said. Amarkhil said poverty, widespread in Afghanistan after nearly three decades of war, forced teenage boys into compliance.

Coomaraswamy said raising awareness and prosecuting those responsible was the first step to ending the practice as it would act as a deterrent to others.

She said she was also concerned about a rise in the recruitment of child soldiers by the Taliban and others in recent months, as well as about civilian casualties including children from U.S.-led coalition raids and air strikes.

Editing by Eric Walsh

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