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Crèche shortage needs addressing

Some politicians are calling for more crèche places, especially in German-speaking Switzerland

(Keystone Archive)

A chronic lack of crèche places in Switzerland is preventing many women from returning to the workplace.

Attitudes are slowly changing in Switzerland. Where once crèches were seen as a necessary evil, allowing poorer mothers to return to work, they are now regarded as essential not only for women to reassert their identity, but also for the development of the child.

As is often the way with Switzerland, it may be the economic arguments that provoke change. The benefits to the economy of having thousands of - often well-qualified - women back in the workplace are evident.

Recent studies have shown that every franc the authorities spend on childcare places will be recouped fourfold. More women will be paying taxes and families will be spending more.

Return on investment

"It's important for people to see that there is a return on the investment," says Lucrezia Meier-Schatz, a member of the federal parliament and president of Pro Familia, an organisation that concerns itself with family policies in Switzerland.

Meier-Schatz says that there is just one childcare place for every seven children under the age of six in Switzerland. While not all of their parents will be seeking crèche or kindergarten places, this still translates into a severe shortage, and has an impact on thousands of mothers wanting - or needing - to go back to work.

But Meier-Schatz says "the implications are greater for the child. There is an interest in getting small children socialising in small groups" as preparation for school life.

Regional differences

While education is a matter for cantonal governments, moves are well under way to get the federal authorities involved.

A draft law, proposed by the Social Democrat Jacqueline Fehr, would oblige the government to spend SFr100 million a year on creating more childcare facilities - be it in crèches, kindergartens or school meal places, the lack of which often prevents women returning to work. But the federal government says it's only prepared to provide SFr25 million a year.

The proposal is due to be debated by the House of Representatives at a special parliamentary session on Wednesday.

Most work needs to be done in German-speaking and rural areas, where a more traditional attitude persists.

"In the German-speaking part, especially outside the cities, there is still a conservative image of the family, and the mother has to stay at home," Meier-Schatz says. "Many women are still reluctant to give their children to someone else to look after."

More crèche places are available in French-speaking cantons, though demand there is also much higher. A well-established network of crèches already exists in cities like Lausanne and Geneva.

State's responsibility

"We are ahead of other parts of the country because that is what the population has demanded," says Marie-Françoise de Tassigny, head of Geneva's municipal delegation for pre-school children. The service, created in 1986, oversees the running of the 51 crèches subsidised by the city authorities.

"Our politicians have decided to make the care of pre-school children a priority. It should be the responsibility not only of the family, but also the state," she told swissinfo.

The Geneva city authorities have more than doubled the number of crèche places available in the past 15 years. But it is still far from fulfilling demand. More than 60 per cent of all requests for crèche places and 30 per cent for kindergartens have to be turned down.

In fact a quarter of all requests are made even before the child in question is born.

In Geneva, it makes economic sense to increase the number of childcare places available and allow women to return to work, given the money invested in their education. But it is also considered to be an important way of observing the development of the children.

Balanced existence

"Twenty years ago only working-class women sent their children to crèche. Now it's a must for everyone, because the quality of the teaching is so high," de Tassigny says.

It is also a great way of fostering integration - for parents as well as children - in such an international city. In one state-subsidised crèche, there are no fewer that 55 nationalities represented.

As well as the benefits to the child and the economy, the boost working gives to a woman's self-esteem should not be underestimated.

"We are not like our mothers. We're intelligent adults and want to have a full and balanced life," says Nadia, a Geneva mother of two, picking up her daughter from a crèche in central Geneva.

"Why should we give up an important part of ourselves. It's not as if the children are suffering," she said, adding that the structure of Swiss society has failed to keep pace with the aspirations of families.

There is a general feeling, though, that the state should not take on the burden of providing childcare alone, and that the private sector - which benefits from the early return of qualified female workers - should play a role.

Here, too, attitudes are slowly beginning to change. Surveys suggest that around one-fifth of companies help to fund childcare for employees. Between five and nine per cent either have their own crèches or operate them jointly with other concerns.

Another scheme is run by the Swiss Red Cross. It arranges care for children who are too sick to attend playgroup. Started as a pilot project in Geneva, it has spread to a number of other towns. Some companies like the Credit Suisse Group have agreed to pay two-thirds of the cost when their employees make use of this service.

by Roy Probert

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