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Burkina Faso: Government Plans Support for Women Accused of Witchcraft, While Others Call for Legislation

(May 29, 2012) Earlier this month, Burkina Faso announced a plan to offer legal and other types of support to persons accused of witchcraft and driven from their homes. The plan will go into effect between this year and 2016. In addition to access to legal and psycho-social counseling, the victims will be given financial support to re-establish themselves in their fields of work. (Brahima Ouédraogo, Burkina Faso: Action Plan to End Banishing of 'Witches' in Burkina Faso, ALLAFRICA (May 7, 2012),

The problem stems from a custom called “the bearing of the body,” in which when someone dies in what is thought to be suspicious circumstances, the body is carried through the community. It is believed that the deceased person will guide the community to the one responsible for the death. Usually the person accused is chased away from their home. According to Burkina Faso's Ministry for Social Action and National Solidarity, almost 600 women have been victims of this custom. (Id.)

Gérard Zongo, from the non-governmental organization Commission Justice et Paix (CJP), noted that most of the accused are women and that when men are accused of witchcraft, they have had more success in moving to new villages and starting over. (Id.) The plan for assistance to these women was developed carefully over five years. According to Boukary Sawadogo, Director-General of the Ministry, the draft was written with sensitivity to the cultural context. Sawadogo explained:

We're not passing judgment on sorcery in Burkina, but we will respond to the facts, which are exclusion and violence …. It's a social phenomenon which one cannot simply decree an end to. It's a process that calls for a favourable environment to secure participation by everyone …. If the traditional chiefs are not ready, then you'll never achieve it. (Id.)

CJP argues that the government policy does not go far enough and that legislation should be enacted to deal with the problem. “Contrary to what many people think, we could quickly put an end to this phenomenon. It calls for clear legislation; for example, we could ban 'the bearing of the body,'” Zongo said. (Id.)

Support similar to that outlined in the new plan was recommended by a group of organizations that submitted a report to the 47th session of the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The report noted that “[t]he belief in witchcraft is widespread in Burkina Faso and older women are often the subject of accusations. Accused women are subjected to psychological trauma, physical harm, social exclusion, impoverishment through loss of property and assets, and ultimately banishment from their communities.” (Discrimination Against Older Women in Burkina Faso (July 2010), Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights website.)

The report also called on the government to “investigate, prosecute and punish acts of violence towards older women and other offences, including accusations of witchcraft, committed as a result of traditional beliefs in witchcraft under appropriate criminal laws, for example, murder, assault, damage to property, incitement and libel.” (Id.)

Haridata Dacouré, president of the women's rights organization Femmes et Droits pour le Développement, also felt the government plan did not go far enough to protect women accused of witchcraft. She suggested, however, that attempting to prosecute those who threaten and beat the women will not succeed, because it is usually a large group that carries out the actions and locating the guilty parties would be difficult. Instead she advocates making the head of a community that mistreats a supposed witch pay damages to the victim. She added:

I'm convinced that when we target the wallets of these people who burn down women's houses, who assault and exclude women like this – when instead of the government taking care of the victims, we go into their pockets for money to reintegrate people – then they'll think more carefully before they act. (Ouédraogo, supra.)