Helping girls in trouble

The Mädchenhaus Zurich offers a refuge for girls in need Mädchenhaus Zürich

The number of young women seeking help from the Mädchenhaus Zurich - Switzerland’s only refuge for girls - is on the rise, according to latest figures.

This content was published on August 5, 2010

They are often victims of physical, psychological or sexual violence – normally carried out within the family. Some are fleeing from forced marriages.

Zurich was shaken in May by the case of 16-year-old Swera, of Pakistani Muslim origin, who was killed by her father with an axe in what has been described as an honour killing. The well-integrated teenager had been in conflict with her immigrant parents.

This kind of extreme case is rare, says Karin Aeberhard, co-director of the Mädchenhaus Zurich. “This was tragic and would have been a typical Mädchenhaus case, but often a girl can get help before the situation goes that far,” she told

The Mädchenhaus is made up of a residential section - whose location is secret to protect its residents - and a counselling office, which is also has 24-hour telephone availability.

In all, 292 girls, mostly aged between 14 and 17, received advice in 2009, a ten per cent increase on 2008. Around two-thirds were of migrant background.

The refuge took in 54 girls and as many had to be turned away because the institution, which only has seven beds, was full.

Aeberhard said that raised awareness among the authorities was one reason behind the rise in consultations. “On the other hand, girls are now more likely to seek help”, she said.

Violence and no freedom

Many have experienced physical or psychological violence. Often they don’t have much personal freedom and must come straight home from school and help around the house.

“The girls are especially affected when they reach puberty and have contact with boys and the parents do not approve,” said Aeberhard.

“We have migrant girls who are told if they don’t obey or behave in a certain way they will be sent back to their homeland, even if the girls were born in Switzerland, or that they will have to marry a man they have perhaps never seen,” she added.

Often it is the father who metes out the punishment, the mother not daring to do anything out of fear. Older brothers might also join in.

“If the girl can’t bear it anymore, she goes and confides in a friend or teacher or a school social worker. It is then through the social worker that she ends up at the Mädchenhaus,” said Aeberhard.

Confusing time

The Mädchenhaus offers a safe shelter for three months. It is often a confusing and emotional time for the girls, as this extract from a poem by one resident attests:

“I am afraid to go to sleep and never wake to see the day. I’m afraid to reach crossroads and go the wrong way. I’m afraid to take a decision that I will regret in due course. I’m afraid to show my weaknesses, love, understanding, remorse.”

During this time the Mädchenhaus consults the local authorities to see if the girl can return home at some point, if possible with someone to accompany her through the process. If not, it helps arrange a place for her to live.

Around half of the young women who took shelter at the refuge in 2009 eventually returned home.

Authorities’ help

In Zurich questions were raised over the authorities’ handling of the Swera case as the family was known to social services.

Overall, Aeberhard says, help for girls in need differs greatly. Some social services in the city are able to give good advice, but authorities is smaller villages may not have much experience of these issues and “the support leaves something to be desired”.

There is no Swiss-wide organisation, as such services are left to the cantons and local authorities.

Aeberhard says raising awareness is key so that the public and authorities know how to help. Prevention work in schools would be especially valuable, to show girls where to go and what their rights are.

Finances are, however, an issue. “There’s not enough money and girls are very quickly placed back with their families although the situation hasn’t really changed or girls are placed somewhere which is not right for them but it’s the cheaper option,” she said.

“This is a big problem and will continue to be so in the next years.”

Isobel Leybold-Johnson in Zurich,

Life in the Mädchenhaus

The refuge is aimed at girls and young women aged 14-20 and there is space for seven.

Living conditions are like flat sharing. The girls have single or double rooms and share a kitchen, bathroom, living room and games room. In the evening the residents cook and eat together. Housework is shared out and each girl has duties for which she is responsible for a week.

Where possible, residents should keep on going to school, work or their apprenticeships. If not, the refuge offers a special structure for the day (school work, hobbies, excursions).
Every week there are evening groups working on topics around violence. Weekends feature communal activities.

Each girl has a supervisor to support her. Stays are limited to three months.

More than 3,700 girls have sought help from the refuge since its founding in late 1994.

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