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16 days to fight violence towards women

Violence against women is being combated around the world on November 25

A nationwide campaign has been launched to tackle physical, sexual and psychological violence still suffered by thousands of women in Switzerland.

The drive also aims to fight what it calls less visible, but more widespread types of abuse, such as discrimination and the pay gap between the sexes.

More than 60 organisations and associations have signed up for the "16 days against violence against women" campaign, which starts on Wednesday, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and ends on December 10, International Human Rights Day. It is the second time that the campaign has been launched in Switzerland.

Violence against women is a wider violation of human rights, said Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, at a press conference in Bern ahead of the launch. "It is a phenomenon that knows no geographical, cultural or social borders," she said.

One in five women in Switzerland is estimated to suffer physical or sexual violence during her lifetime and 40 per cent undergo mental abuse, the minister underlined.

"We are all called upon to act," Widmer-Schlumpf said, adding that the laws are there but they need to be applied.

Dangerous home

Legislation has made progress. Since 2004 domestic violence is no longer considered a private matter but an indictable offence.

"The most dangerous place for a woman is her own home," said Cécile Bühlmann, head of the feminist peace organisation, cfd.

But experts say there are still problems carrying out the law. "Around three quarters of the proceedings started are shelved by the public prosecutor's office," Karin Haeberli, co-director of the Basel City cantonal services against domestic violence, told swissinfo.ch.

"Being an indictable offence has not improved the situation," she added.

According to Haeberli, there are enormous differences in how Switzerland's 26 different cantons apply the law. For example, she says, handing out restraining orders for perpetrators of violence, which has been possible since 2007, has been adopted by "65 per cent of police in the canton of Zurich and by 14 per cent in Basel City".

Migrant victims

Another dark chapter, says Haeberli, concerns the migrant victims of domestic violence. "Often they only have the choice between two disastrous scenarios: stay with the violent husband or start divorce proceedings and thus risk losing their right to stay in Switzerland and custody of their children," said the expert.

This situation has been flagged up as unsatisfactory by the UN Human Rights Committee. Both the Federal Commission for Women's Issues and the cantonal services against domestic violence have asked the Federal Migration Office if foreign women victims may be granted leave to stay.

But Bühlmann points out that laws alone won't help improve women's lot. It is not sufficient just to protect women – their competences also need to be strengthened , she added.

This is why the campaign is also targeting structural violence, or inequality between the sexes, another thorny area in Switzerland.

"Our society is still organised in such a way that men and women still do not have the same opportunities," said Corinne Schärer, in charge of women's issues at Switzerland's main union, Unia.

Inequality

Women in Switzerland still earn less than men for doing the same work despite laws that make doing so illegal. The economic crisis has also worsened the situation. Women are often the first to be asked to work part-time or the first out of the door when work dries up, Schärer added.

"Structural violence is very difficult to thematise," explained Amanda Weibel, coordinator of the 16 days campaign. But the organisers do not want to shy away from the topic but highlight its many facets.

Over the next two and a half weeks there are more than 65 events being held which range from handing out leaflets to exhibitions, conferences, debates, concerts and interactive performances.

The idea is to reach as many people as possible to raise awareness that violence against women is unacceptable and should be eradicated, say campaigners.

The wall of silence around the issue needs to be broken. Twenty years ago violence against women was not a political topic, said Weibel. Now the taboo is partially broken, although there is still work to be done.

"For the victims is always difficult to come into the open and say who they are," Weibel said. They need to be reassured and encouraged to speak out. And for this, awareness work will need to continue past the 16 days.

Sonia Fenazzi, swissinfo.ch (Translated from Italian by Isobel Leybold-Johnson)

Domestic violence in Switzerland

Up to one in five women in Switzerland falls victim to domestic violence – physical or sexual aggression, according to official estimates. Up to 40% have faced mental abuse.

Between 2000 and 2004 an average of 25 women aged over 14 and ten men died as a result of domestic violence each year.

In the same period, 45% of attempted killings, successful or not, took place in a context of domestic violence. This puts Switzerland at the top worldwide, ahead of Australia (35%) and the United States (16%).

Since April 2004, domestic violence has been an offence for which proceedings are brought directly by the public prosecutor.

Measures, including constraining orders, can be imposed against perpetrators, as part of a new clause in the civic law which took effect in 2007.

Switzerland is combating domestic violence at national and cantonal levels.

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Special days

November 25 is the first day of a 16-day campaign of activism taking place worldwide against gender violence. The campaign runs until International Human Rights Day on December 10, making the link between gender violence and human rights.

International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on November 25 was first initiated to commemorate the murder of three sisters Patria, Minerva and Maria Mirabel in the Dominican Republic in 1960.

The Mirabel sisters, who were active in the underground resistance against dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, were brutally murdered after being released from prison. Their courage has been taken to symbolise the worldwide struggle of women against injustice.

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