Ouagadougou — It's called "the bearing of the body" in Burkina Faso: when a death is deemed suspicious and a group of men carry the corpse through the community, believing the deceased will guide them towards the person responsible for the death. The accused - almost always women - are then chased out of their homes.
According to the Ministry for Social Action and National Solidarity, some 600 women across the country have fallen victim to this practice. Most have found precarious shelter at one of 11 centres around the country, run by various non-governmental organisations.
"It's generally women who are accused of witchcraft - and when it's men, they are able to move to other villages," said Gérard Zongo, from the non-governmental organisation Commission Justice et Paix (CJP), which recently launched a campaign to support women accused of witchcraft.
Burkina Faso recently adopted a plan of action to end the practice of banishing women accused of witchcraft from their homes.
The new action plan, to be implemented between now and 2016, will see the Ministry for Social Action take over responsibility for victims of this type of social exclusion. Women driven from their homes will have access to legal and psychosocial support, as well as financial support to re-establish their livelihoods.
The plan has been five years in the making, said Boukary Sawadogo, director-general of the ministry, because its final drafting was complicated by the sensitivity of the question of witchcraft in this West African country.
"We're not passing judgment on sorcery in Burkina, but we will respond to the facts, which are exclusion and violence," he told IPS.
"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," Sawadogo warned. "If the traditional chiefs are not ready, then you'll never achieve it."
While civil society and human rights organisations welcome the action plan, they are not entirely satisfied with the government's level of ambition on this question.
"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'," said Zongo, who directs CJP's programmes against social exclusion.
"The authorities must be more ambitious, to achieve the plan's objectives," he said. "We feel they are not very proactive."
For instance, the plan calls for legal support for women who have been excluded. But to date, only one woman has won a case - in early April - and been reunited with her family.
"It's an excellent thing to have an action plan, but it's still not perfect," said Haridata Dacouré, president of the women's rights NGO Femmes et Droits pour le Développement.
Dacouré believes that any approach which attempts simply to punish people who threaten and beat women accused of witchcraft will fail, pointing out that these actions are carried out by a crowd and it's difficult to prosecute, convict and sentence the entire group.
Instead, she suggests measures that would oblige the head of the community, perhaps even the chief, to pay damages to the victim.
"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," Dacouré told IPS.
As part of its campaign to support women accused of witchcraft, Commission Justice et Paix is organising a series of "solidarity days" intended both to end these women's isolation and to facilitate their reintegration. The campaign includes the adoption of victims by sponsors - to date, 120 women have been paired with sponsors who pay them regular visits to help ease their social isolation.
"We believe that the gravity of the problem needs to be urgently recognised," said Sister Maria, from Ouagadougou's Centre Delwindé, established in 1965 and home to nearly 400 excluded women, "to raise popular awareness so measures can be taken to avoid so much harm to people whose only crime is lacking the power to defend themselves."