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Police target domestic violence

Victims of domestic violence in Switzerland are often forced to flee their homes (www.prevention-criminalite.ch)

The Swiss authorities have launched a zero-tolerance campaign against domestic violence, which is estimated to affect one in five women.

They want to encourage more victims and witnesses of abuse to seek help more quickly.

The Crime Prevention Centre, which brings together all of Switzerland's cantonal police forces, also aims to teach officers about the best ways of intervening in cases of domestic violence.

Last year police responded to around 10,000 incidents nationwide; yet only ten per cent of domestic violence cases ever reach the courts.

Violence within relationships has traditionally been something of a taboo subject in Switzerland.

Elizabeth Reust, who works in Bern's shelter for battered women, says that even the victims themselves often seek to deny what is happening to them.

"It's psychologically very difficult to recognise the fact that such violence is happening within a relationship which is supposed to be founded on love," Reust told swissinfo.

"Very often the victims blame themselves and they are ashamed to admit what is happening to them."

Hidden crime

Reust hopes that the new campaign, with its posters and brochures proclaiming that "violence will be prosecuted, even in a relationship", will encourage victims to be more open about their situation.

But Reust also believes that those who deal with cases of domestic violence, in particular the police, need to develop a more unified approach.

"Sometimes we just rely on luck," she said.

"There are individual police officers who have thought very hard about this issue, and know what to do," she added. "But we still don't have a unified coherent procedure for how the police should intervene."

Reust is supported by Barbara Ruf, head of canton Bern's intervention project, which aims to coordinate the response of all those seeking to help victims of domestic violence.

Guidelines

The project has already provided a domestic violence "checklist" for cantonal police, which sets out a list of best practice guidelines for officers called to a case.

"One important thing for the police to remember," Ruf told swissinfo, "is that their job is not really to try and calm the conflict. Their primary task is to investigate the abuse."

Police in canton Bern agree that officers need more training when it comes to cases of domestic violence, but stress that they do take the issue very seriously indeed.

Last year officers in canton Bern dealt with more than 800 reported cases.

"Domestic violence is a daily problem for us; we have always taken it seriously," said Christof Kipfer, regional head of department with Bern's cantonal police.

"But we do need to learn more," he told swissinfo. "We need to do better forensic work, investigating the nature of the injuries and comparing them with things in the house that could have been used as a weapon, for example."

Domestic violence

Kipfer says officers also need to learn more about the psychological aspects of domestic violence, as well as develop a better understanding for other languages and cultures.

The new campaign aims to provide just this sort of information; starting this autumn, over 1,000 officers from canton Bern will be sent on training courses.

All those working with the victims of domestic violence agree, however, that changes in Swiss law are needed if the situation is really to be improved.

In most cantons, battered women are obliged to flee their homes, taking their children with them, in order to escape violence.

But a new law in St Gallen now permits the exclusion of a violent man from the family home; it's hoped this could be extended nationwide.

Under current legislation domestic violence is not classed as an official crime. Instead it falls into the category of bodily harm - depending on the gravity of the victim's injuries - and police have to rely on an often-terrified victim to bring a prosecution.

Prosecution

An amendment to the law, which would make domestic violence an official crime and allow police to bring prosecutions themselves, is before parliament.

"This would make things easier," explained Kipfer. "Although of course we will always need evidence from the victim, and if she is afraid of the offender then that will remain a problem."

A further legal problem, which Elizabeth Reust believes needs to be addressed urgently, is the question of foreign women.

"Often they won't approach the authorities even if they are the victims of serious domestic violence," she explained. "Because if they leave their husbands they risk losing their residence permits and have to leave the country."

"It's quite common that a battered woman is deported from Switzerland, while her abusive partner stays comfortably living and working here."

swissinfo, Imogen Foulkes

In brief

An estimated one in five women in Switzerland will suffer domestic violence at some point in their lives.

The new campaign aims to unify police procedure when dealing with cases of domestic violence, and encourage victims to seek help quickly.

An amendment currently before parliament seeks to make domestic violence an official crime. This would allow the police, rather than just the victim, to bring a prosecution.

Only ten cent of domestic violence cases are currently prosecuted.

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