A Swiss study has shown that regular home visits by social workers can significantly reduce domestic violence.
One fifth of Swiss women say they have been physically or sexually abused by their partner. But different methodologies and definitions of violence make this figure difficult to compare with other industrialised countries.
However, the question of domestic violence has certainly become a subject of growing concern in Switzerland, and one reason why the Swiss National Science Foundation was prepared to fund the research project by Fribourg University.
"Domestic violence is not a new phenomenon," says Georg Müller, a senior lecturer in Social Sciences at the university. "Fortunately society and the media have put it on the public agenda, and since it is a serious problem, it is up to social science to help find a solution."
Most academic studies have concentrated on the causes of domestic violence, but the Fribourg researchers decided to look at how to deal with the violence, and so conducted the first long-term study into the non-violent resolution of domestic conflict.
"A deeper knowledge of a social order presupposes that we look at not only the problems, but also the potential for success of certain measures," says Alberto Godenzi, who led the study, and who now works in the American city of Boston.
Müller says many well-known causal factors - such as alcohol abuse or poverty - cannot easily be changed by primary prevention. Others - social isolation and bad communication between partners, for instance - can.
The Fribourg team studied how couples managed the difficult period after the birth of a first child, and how to encourage constructive, non-violent behaviour.
Over an 18-month period, two groups - each with around 100 young couples from the Zurich area - were studied. One group received regular home visits from counsellors, while the others had none. All the couples were interviewed three times by telephone and the results were compared.
"There were noticeable differences between the two groups. Our home visiting programme succeeded in reducing the frequency of marital conflict, as well as the woman's feelings of being oppressed," Müller told swissinfo, adding that the "social control" exerted by professional visitors and their improved problem-solving capabilities contributed to this improvement.
Significantly though, he said that these beneficial effects were short-lived, lasting only as long as the visiting programme continued. He believes there is a case for extending the period for home visits to around three years after the birth of a child.
Convincing the authorities that such lengthy programmes are a good use of public money would be difficult, but Müller points out that there was no screening of couples before the experiment. With screening, home-visiting programmes could be more targeted.
Getting abusive husbands to agree to such visits, however, is an obstacle that has not yet been cleared.
by Roy Probert