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Long road to achieving gender equality

Swiss women are seen - here in traditional Appenzell dress - but not always heard

(Keystone Archive)

Attitudes to gender equality are slowly changing in Switzerland but much more still needs to be done, according to the Federal Commission for Women's Issues.

The body, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary on Thursday, warns that despite legal progress since the 1970s, gender equality is still far off that of model countries such as Sweden or Norway.

In 1976, when the federal commission was set up, a married Swiss woman still had to ask her husband's permission to work. Statistics on equal pay were not available and female victims of domestic violence were accorded little or no protection.

Since then the situation has evolved in the right direction, but progress has been slow.

"Things have improved on the legal side, such as the principle of equal rights being enshrined in the Swiss constitution and the equal opportunities law," Elisabeth Keller, head of the secretariat of the Federal Commission of Women's Issues, told swissinfo.

But despite better legal protection, in practice Swiss women continue to suffer discrimination. They still assume a larger share of domestic work, even while holding down a job, earn on average 20 per cent less than men, and are under-represented in upper management and in politics, said the commission.

By international comparison, Switzerland is in the lower first third of parliamentary representation, with women making up about 25 per cent of parliamentarians. In the business world Switzerland comes much lower down.

The top 26 Swiss companies have only three per cent women among their senior management and nine per cent on their board of directors. In lower management the percentage has gone from 19 per cent in 1991 to 30 per cent in 2005.

Mental

Keller says reducing gender inequalities requires much more than just laws - a fundamental change is needed in the mentality of Swiss society, among both men and women.

"We should do much more to eliminate gender stereotypes at school, in daily life, at work and in politics. Compared with Scandinavian countries, the Swiss are much more set in their ways when deciding their profession, for example," she explained.

"It's important to explain to young men and women the need for choosing the right profession. We can do much more in our schools and raise awareness at different levels."

Keller stressed that combining a family with a career was a common complaint among Swiss women.

"When people come here from [other parts of] Europe they cannot understand the ongoing debate. To them it's logical that we should develop our childcare facilities," she said, adding that it was the responsibility of companies, the government and local authorities to create ideal conditions to allow both parents to work flexibly.

Domestic violence also remains a very serious problem. According to Amnesty International, one in five women falls victim at least once in her life to domestic violence – including threats, blackmail, beatings and sexual violence.

"There have been legal improvements but you just need to read the newspapers to see how serious the problem is," said Keller.

"It is important to raise awareness among those who deal with the problem, such as the police, and social and health workers to see how we can provide better preventive support."

On Wednesday the Swiss government announced that it had decided to ratify the Optional Protocol to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which grants additional anti-discrimination protection.

The protocol enables individuals or groups to bring complaints for violations of their rights under the convention before a UN committee.

"It's symbolic," said Keller, "it's Switzerland's way of saying 'there is still discrimination going on in our country but we are prepared to do something'."

swissinfo, Simon Bradley

In brief

The Federal Commission for Women's Issues is an extra-parliamentary commission founded in 1976 and appointed by the cabinet, whose aim is to achieve gender equality.

The commission is composed of representatives from women's organisations, social partners, the academic world and other professions.

It monitors and comments on the situation of women in Switzerland and makes recommendations for the advancement of equal opportunities. It also give its opinion on draft laws, and cooperates with the authorities, organisations and other interested parties.

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Key facts

The principle of equal rights for women and men was enshrined in the Swiss constitution in 1981.
The Federal Law on Equality between Women and Men has been in force since 1996.
The Federal Commission for Women's Issues was founded in 1976.
The Federal Equality Office was set up in 1988.

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