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Geneva paves way for Swiss maternity benefits

Women's rights activists protesting last year after voters' rejected compulsory maternity benefits

(Keystone)

Geneva has become the first Swiss canton to introduce statutory maternity benefits, raising hope that Switzerland may soon give up its unenviable position of being the only country in Western Europe which does not grant such payments.

Geneva's cantonal parliament approved the draft law proposed by its social affairs commission. The new law, which envisages 16 weeks paid maternity leave, will come into force in July 2001.

Payments will be made only to those mothers who have been working in the canton for at least three months - estimated at around 3,000 women a year. They will receive 80 per cent of their salary.

The payments will also be made to people adopting a child under the age of eight.

Benefits will amount to an estimated SFr 48 million a year, with contributions to a new fund being made equally by employers and employees. The canton will make a loan of SFr 20 million to get the scheme up and running.

One criticism from women's groups has been that the law only applies to working mothers, and that unemployed women will receive no benefits.

Geneva's move was prompted by the Swiss people's rejection, in a referendum in June 1999, of a federal maternity insurance scheme. The vote exposed big differences in the country, with all but one of the French-speaking cantons approving the move and all the German-speaking ones rejecting it.

The strength of feeling felt in Geneva by that setback was demonstrated after Thursday's historic vote in the cantonal parliament, when someone unfurled a banner in the chamber stating: "Switzerland aborted; Geneva gave birth".

"Obviously, I'm very satisfied," says Fabienne Bugnon, spokeswoman of the parliamentary commission responsible for drawing up the new law.

"Justice has been done to the women of Geneva, since, when the federal maternity scheme failed, more than 74 per cent of the people of Geneva approved it," she told swissinfo.

She pointed out that, since 1945, there has been provision in the Swiss federal constitution for maternity insurance, but that it had never been introduced.

"When it came before the Swiss people, they rejected it, so a cantonal maternity benefit scheme was absolutely necessary," Bugnon said.

Some progress is being made at federal level. On Wednesday, the Senate passed a motion calling for the introduction of 14 weeks paid maternity leave. The House of Representatives had already approved the proposal.

It could be years before a federal scheme is in place, and the authorities have voiced support for Geneva's move, aware that a cantonal approach may be more productive in the short term.

"It's a positive signal to the other cantons, especially the French-speaking cantons which were in favour of a Swiss solution," says Otto Piller, director of the Federal Social Security Office.

"The German-speaking cantons have a different view on social issues, but I think that in four or five years, they will follow Geneva's example," Piller told swissinfo.

Under Swiss law, women are banned from working for eight weeks after childbirth. Most receive some money from their employers, but the companies are under no obligation to pay it.

It means that around 200,000 women get no guaranteed financial support while taking time off from work to have a child.

"I think that, once the law comes into force and women are starting to reap the benefits, it will give an incentive to other cantons," Fabienne Bugnon says.

"And I hope it will act as a spur to the confederation. Because we continue to hope for a benefit for all women in Switzerland," she adds.

by Roy Probert

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