In Afghanistan’s countryside, a disturbing, illegal practice is spreading across the region – bacha bazi. Translated as “boy play,” bacha bazi is the sexual enslavement of pre-pubescent and adolescent boys by wealthy men.

Boys that refuse to participate are often murdered. Once the victims become “too mature” to be considered desirable, they are sent home where they are usually rejected by family and society, leaving them homeless, desolate and traumatized.

Award-winning Afghan journalist and filmmaker Najibullah Quraishi, and independent filmmaker Jamie Doran, investigate this horrifying practice in the documentary, The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan. Through their commitment to examine a dangerous underworld and expose a moral crisis, Quraishi and Doran demonstrate moral courage.

Bravely probing the bacha bazi subculture, the filmmakers depict ethical hypocrisy. Afghanistan’s government claims to enforce a strict moral code. But it is the very authorities charged with protecting the most vulnerable who allow, and even encourage, bacha bazi to grow unchecked.

Filmed in Takhar, a province in Northeast Afghanistan, The Dancing Boys documents the role that several men play in the procuring, training and abusing of young boys. Quraishi successfully infiltrates this world of systemic child rape by convincing the ring leaders that he is actually defending bacha bazi by comparing it to similar practices in Europe.

In the film, we discover that the men involved in the abuse are successful businesspeople, local police officers, government officials and former warlords. “Owning” a boy is considered a status symbol.

Quraishi described how he felt interviewing the abusers: “What was so unnerving about the men I had met was not just their lack of concern for the damage their abuse was doing to the boys. It was also the casualness with which they operated and the pride with which they showed me their boys, their friends, their world. They clearly believed that nothing they were doing was wrong.”

The victims, sometimes as young as nine years old, are typically very vulnerable. They may be from poor families willing to accept money in exchange for a son. They may be orphaned, living on the streets, and offered food and shelter in return for dancing.

The boys are made to look more feminine by being dressed up in women’s clothing and make-up. They are trained to dance and sing love songs. Used to entertain men at exclusive parties, the boys are either purchased and kept as sex slaves or traded among men as prostitutes.

In the film, a 13-year-old dancing boy is interviewed: “Sometimes fighting happens among the men who own the boys. If you don’t please them, they beat you, and people get killed.”

In the documentary, local police officers are adamant that anyone sexually abusing or enslaving a child is arrested and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Sadly, at illegal bacha bazi parties captured in the film, officers from the same unit are shown to be in attendance. A UNICEF official confirmed that “many of the people who do this work for the government. They speak out against it but are abusers themselves…”

The mother of a 15-year-old boy who was murdered after trying to escape from his “owner” reflected on why this problem continues: “If only these people were punished, this kind of thing wouldn’t happen. Whoever commits these crimes doesn’t get punished. Power is power.”

Quraishi and Doran remind us that we all have the personal power to stand for others.