Switzerland’s rate of births out of wedlock is half the European Union average, even if it is on the rise. Many couples only marry once a baby is on the way, with concern over fathers’ rights a main driver. But that may soon change.
Heinz Stoller and Ariane Senn got married in August. Their baby is due in October. There was a certain amount of expectation, and joy, from the couple’s family about their decision to tie the knot, they said.
But they did weigh things up carefully beforehand. For Stoller, protection of his wife and better child visitation rights should the relationship break down were important. “Above all, it’s simpler when you have a child and get married,” concluded Senn, from her lakeside home near Bern.
Statistics published this summer showed that births outside marriage stood at 20.2 per cent Switzerland in 2012 – around half the European Union average of 39 per cent.
This is much less than Scandinavia - or even over the border in France – whose rates are all over 50 per cent. Of Switzerland’s neighbours, only Italy has a similar rate (23 per cent).
“I think [the lower Swiss rate] is mostly related to the policy environment in Switzerland in which births out of wedlock are highly disregarded, or at least not supported,” said Sebastian Kluesener, of the Max Planck Society in Germany, which in 2012 released a study into extramarital births across Europe.
“For example if the father wants the child to have his last name, it is really a tedious procedure. So a lot of people marry just before the birth, just to avoid the bureaucratic hassle.”
Countries such as France have given unmarried fathers more rights, he said. But Switzerland has remained conservative in this respect requiring cohabiting fathers who wish to establish paternity and joint custody - the mother has automatic custody - to go through lots of red tape.
Cohabiting parents also have to apply specifically to the authorities for the man to transfer his surname to the child. Otherwise the child is automatically granted the mother’s surname.
Unmarried fathers seem well aware that their rights could be curtailed, said University of Lausanne sociologist Jean-Marie Le Goff.
Extra-marital births across Europe %
Greece 7.4 (2011)
Switzerland 20.2 (2012)
Italy 23.4 (2011)
Germany 34.1 (2012)
Spain 35.5 (2012)
European Union average: 39.5 (2011)
Austria 41.5 (2012)
UK 47.6 (2012)
Sweden 54.5 (2012)
France 55.8 (2011)
Norway 56.5 (2012)
(Source: Eurostat, Swiss Federal Statistics Office)
What’s in a name?
In interviews he has carried out with couples as part of a Swiss study into children born out of wedlock, he found that men were worried about the administrative issues linked to paternity and – on a more emotional level – about the child not having their name.
“Men feel excluded from the family and that they are not continuing their lineage,” Le Goff observed.
For these reasons, it is often the men who put pressure on their partners to get married when the first child is on the way, added the sociologist.
Indeed, a look at the newspaper marriage announcements such as the NZZ am Sonntag’s Just Married page will invariably include a pregnant or new mother bride.
Markus Theunert, spokesman of the men’s and fathers’ organisation maenner.ch, said that despite one in two marriages ending in divorce, many people clung on to the ideal of true love, with marriage being the idealised form of this.
“But the legal situation is also a reason [for marriage], fathers of out of wedlock children are legally clearly at a disadvantage compared with married fathers,” he told swissinfo.ch.
“Joint custody is still up to the mother. If, for some reason, she is not willing to cooperate it means that the man will have to pay but can only see his child every second weekend, if he is lucky.”
To marry or not?
But there are signs of change. The statistics may show a relatively low rate for Switzerland, but 2012 was actually the first time that births outside marriage had exceeded 20 per cent – or one in five. The percentage jumped 6.2 per cent between 2011 and 2012 and has almost doubled in the last decade, according to the Federal Statistics Office.
Social commentators have pointed to the fact that it is no longer considered such a taboo to have a child out of marriage. The country also has a relatively high rate of cohabitation.
Nicole Gerber and Christoph Balsiger from Bern have a six month old daughter. “We’ve known each other for a long time but we weren’t together for long before I became pregnant,” Gerber told swissinfo.ch as part of series of interviews with couples on the children and wedlock question (see video).
“We had to grapple with the marriage decision and then said, ‘Well maybe later’. You don’t necessarily need a marriage certificate straight away in order to be happy,” she added.
Balsiger and Gerber did not find the administrative side of joint custody too onerous. It took about half an hour at the authorities. Gerber thinks whether to get married or not has a lot to do with your generation.
All the couples interviewed for the video reported that there was a big mix in their circle of friends between married and unmarried parents. There were also lots of patchwork families, with divorcees and second families.
The legal situation could also soon change. In June this year the Swiss Parliament approved a law that would grant parents joint custody automatically, independently of their marital status (unmarried, married or divorced).
The justice ministry said that children’s welfare was at the heart of the change. “The child has a right that its parents take joint responsibility for his/her development and upbringing, even when they are divorced or unmarried,” the ministry told swissinfo.ch.
“Only if the child’s interests need to be protected will joint custody be withheld.”
The law is still is subject to an optional referendum - which must be submitted by October 10 this year. But as the ministry is not aware of any activities towards such a referendum, it is likely that the government will set a date for the law to come into force as soon as January 1, 2014.
In 1976 the child rights’ law was changed to make children of married and unmarried parents equal in terms of status and inheritance law, but not in terms of parental authority (rights and duties of the parents to take decisions concerning the child). Thus married parents have joint authority and for unmarried parents, the mother has automatic authority.
The divorce law was amended in 2000 to allow unmarried parents to apply to the authorities for joint authority and to agree on the child’s upbringing and support payments. Divorcing parents can also apply for joint custody at the divorce court. If they do not, custody is awarded to one parent only.
The Swiss Civil Code is currently being revised to make joint custody the rule in future despite the marital status of the parents. It will only be awarded to one parent if deemed in the interest of the child. Reasons to take away custody include illness, violence or absence.
Also on the cards are changes to child financial support, making the child’s right to support paramount and eliminating any differences between married and unmarried parents. The consultation process has now ended and the it was announced in May 2013 that the Justice Ministry would work on dispatch on the issue by the end of 2013.
(Source: Justice Ministry)
By Isobel Leybold-Johnson, swissinfo.ch