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Parliament cracks down on domestic violence

Women are often too scared to file a complaint against an abusive partner

(swissinfo.ch)

The House of Representatives has approved proposals to make it easier for the police to prosecute offenders in cases of domestic violence.

Around one in five Swiss women is the victim of abuse in the home but many are unwilling to press charges.

If the proposals also receive the Senate's backing, the police will be able to investigate an incident without needing an official complaint from the victim.

Domestic violence would also be classed as a specific crime rather than falling into the category of grievous bodily harm - making it easier for the courts to handle cases.

"Under the current law if a woman doesn't want to press charges, there's nothing the police or courts can do to help," Sybille Burger of the National Council of Women's Organisations in Switzerland told swissinfo.

"A change in the law would make it easier for women suffering abuse to get the help they need."

Emotional ties

According to Claire Magnin, the director of a shelter for battered women in Biel, women are unlikely to pursue a case through the courts because of the emotional and psychological ties they have to an abusive partner.

"Many women are frightened to involve the police because they fear their husbands will become even more violent," she told swissinfo.

"And in many cases a man will use all the emotional arguments he can to stop a woman from making a complaint."

Although the police say they are called to almost 10,000 incidents of domestic violence each year, only around ten per cent of cases ever reach the courts. This is evidence, says Magnin, that domestic violence often goes unpunished.

Reprisals

Although Burger would welcome a change in the law, she admits that the terms of the proposals currently being debated also leave some issues unresolved.

Women will not be obliged to testify and the threat of reprisals will still exist.

"It will still be difficult to get women to give evidence against their husbands," said Burger. "They can't be forced to appear in court and a case might be weakened if a woman is not prepared to cooperate."

"New legislation might lead to an increase in the number of prosecutions, but it won't be effective in every case."

Taboo

Burger says that a major reason why Switzerland has been slower than other countries in labelling domestic violence as a crime has been the unwillingness to recognise it as a social problem.

She says domestic violence has remained a taboo.

"I think the Swiss... still view domestic violence as a family problem," she said.

"That's why it has remained an internal affair and not the business of anybody outside the family."

The proposals for a change in the law were launched in parliament in 1997.

A six-year delay between a change to the law being put forward and its discussion in parliament is not unusual in the Swiss political system, and Magnin is pleased that the draft legislation has made its way to the House of Representatives.

"I'm happy that it has made it this far in just six years," she said.

"Other proposals, such as one for financing women's shelters, have been around for as long as ten years and parliament has not even started discussing them."

swissinfo, Jonathan Summerton

Key facts

An estimated one in five women in Switzerland suffers domestic violence at some point in their life.
Police are called to almost 10,000 incidents of domestic violence each year, but only around ten per cent of cases ever reach the courts.
The reform would make domestic violence a crime and allow the police to investigate without the victim filing an official complaint.

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