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Burkina Faso: Free Legal Aid for Women Accused of being Witches

Publication Date: 
November 19, 2010

PARIS (TrustLaw) - What links a British-based law firm to an initiative aimed at protecting women in Burkina Faso from accusations of witchcraft?

The answer's global pro bono work.

Earlier this year, a charity caring for older people, HelpAge International, asked Advocates for International Development (A4ID) to help with its work in, among others, Burkina Faso where it's been trying to raise awareness about the plight of women who've fallen victim to witchcraft allegations.

Such beliefs are common in a country where surviving your husband or living to an old age is often regarded with suspicion.

It is often the widows, or the older, poorer or disabled women and those unprotected by male relatives who are most vulnerable to witchcraft accusations. At best, they face banishment from their communities. At worst, they may be tortured or even killed.

HelpAge has called for protection and redress to be provided for those accused of sorcery in the West African country.

Against this backdrop, A4ID found three law firms which were tasked with analysing legislation on witchcraft claims in 12 countries in the Pacific, Asia and Africa.

The firms drew up legislative and other measures to be taken to protect people from witchcraft accusations in Burkina Faso, A4ID's project officer Elisabeth Baraka told the European Pro Bono Forum in Paris.

For international pro bono to work well, lawyers must be prepared to grapple with different languages, different customs and different legal cultures, the conference heard.

Jean Berman, International Senior Lawyers Project (ISLP) Executive Director, said a lot of the organisation’s volunteer lawyers had been U.S. litigators.

"On the one hand, the energy and the enthusiasm and the big-picture strategic thinking an American litigator who’s done class actions in the U.S. brings is very exciting and interesting but on the other hand, it may not work at all in the culture they are in," she said.

"And it can be frustrating for the NGO and the lawyer to not really understand each other on that level."

Despite these kinds of challenges, research shows there's quite an appetite for free legal services.

A few years ago the Thomson Reuters Foundation polled 450 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) about which free service they would like the Foundation to offer. Three-quarters of them picked legal services.

“This is the most unmet need of (the NGO) community,” said Monique Villa, chief executive officer of the Thomson Reuters Foundation.