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Biel takes on violent men

Understanding and solidarity, but no excuses, are the watchwords of a new centre for violent men and boys, which is about to open in the Swiss town of Biel.

The centre is the brainchild of social worker, Marc Brechbuhl, who already runs a drop-in centre for men sponsored by Biel's parish church.

"It's estimated that one in five women in Switzerland is the victim of domestic violence," says Brechbuhl. "So it's clear that shelters for battered women are not the answer to this problem. We have to talk to the perpetrators of violence."

The centre is to be run along principles devised by the "Institute for the Male" in Hamburg. The Hamburg Model, as it is known, insists that violent men themselves must make the first move towards solving their problems. Marc Brechbuhl will not be offering counselling unless he is asked.

"I know it is a difficult step," says Brechbuhl, "but we have set up a special telephone number just for this. What that means is that whoever dials the number is already admitting he has a problem with violence; he does not have to offer lengthy explanations or accuse himself."

The first goal of the counselling is to stop the violence, and the second is to provide advice to men so that they can re-organise their lives in order to prevent situations arising in which violence could re-occur.

He says violent men are typically those who are overworked and who are having difficulties at home with their wife and children. However, he emphasizes that violence can occur in any situation, but that the circumstances are never an excuse.

"The underlying problem is the man's behaviour, not the home or work situation," he says.

Biel's parish church, which is providing the new counselling service, has a long tradition of offering social services to its parishioners. Christoph Grupp, a member of the church committee, believes such work is entirely within the tradition of the church.

"We are not just about weddings and funerals, and getting people into church on Sunday," says Grupp, "I think it is important that we offer services like this."

Grupp also supports the principle that men approaching the centre must be offered sympathy and understanding.

"Unless these men can establish a real relation of trust with Marc Brechbuhl, he won't be able to help them, and the violence can't be prevented," says Grupp. "So showing understanding is vital. That does not mean that we excuse violence though."

Grupp also hopes that the counselling centre, initially a pilot project, will eventually gain support from the town and cantonal social services department.

The Biel centre has already had some interested callers, and expects more shortly. Marc Brechbuhl believes he may even have to recruit more staff.

"I'm surprised at how much interest there has been in such a short time," he says. "A similar centre which opened in Lucerne in November is already counselling a dozen men. So it's quite clear there is a need for centres like ours."

by Imogen Foulkes

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