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Swiss charities give the needy a voice

A homeless person asleep on the steps to Geneva's railway station

(Keystone)

Countries around the globe, including Switzerland, are marking World Day to Overcome Extreme Poverty on Tuesday.

One in seven people in Switzerland live below the breadline and experts say many of them blame themselves and suffer silently instead of calling for help.

Swiss charities chose the slogan "Working together out of Poverty" to remind the public that poverty is a reality on the streets and behind closed doors.

A coalition of five non-governmental organisations, including Caritas and Aid for the Needy, says their aim is to encourage those living in hardship to speak out and for all citizens to consider how they can contribute to the eradication of poverty.

"Poverty is a serious problem in our country," said Olivier Gerhard from Aid for the Needy.

"Unfortunately it is something that is simply not talked about and many Swiss believe it doesn't exist," he told swissinfo.

An estimated one million people in Switzerland – one in seven – live a hand-to-mouth existence, according to Caritas.

The victims are mainly single-parent families or those with many children, but also young people, and many old age pensioners. Around 250,000 children are believed to live in low-income households.

"Switzerland is a rich country and the poor often are ashamed to admit that they need assistance," said Caritas spokeswoman Cathy Flaviano.

She adds that poverty is often barely visible. "The best example is the so-called working poor, those who simply don't earn enough money to make a living."

Declaration

The charities and aid groups have adopted a common declaration in an effort to mark the 20th anniversary of the World Day to combat poverty.

"We refuse any attempt to blame the poor for the conditions they live in and to accuse them of taking unfair advantage of the welfare system," the joint statement said.

Gerhard said simple facts discount allegations of widespread abuse of the social security system.

"Of the estimated 450,000 people who are legally entitled to welfare payments, only about half of those have the courage to claim money," he said.

For its part, Caritas, which recently published a report focusing on poverty in Switzerland, lists three priorities to tackle poverty.

They include improving education and training, support for families with a high risk of falling into the poverty trap and special efforts to promote integration of the needy into society.

"Prevention is by far the best way of fighting poverty," Flaviano said.

swissinfo, Luigi Jorio

In brief

October 17 is the World Day to Overcome Extreme Poverty. The day was first celebrated in 1987 in Paris and has been officially recognised by the Untied Nations since 1992.

The idea for a special day aimed at eradicating extreme poverty came from a Polish priest, Joseph Wresinski, who set up the charity Aid for the Needy – The Fourth World.

To mark the 20th anniversary of the event a series of demonstrations and panel discussions are taking place in Geneva, Lausanne and Lucerne, as well as in Liestal and Binningen near Basel.

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Poverty in Switzerland

Anyone with less than SFr2,480 ($1,950) per month to spend is considered poor in Switzerland, according to official figures from 2004.

The breadline for a family of four was set at SFr4,600 after deductions for taxes and social security.

An estimated one million people – one in seven -in Switzerland live in poverty, according to the church charity Caritas.

Among them are 250,000 children, nearly 200,000 old age pensioners and more than 600,000 people aged 19 to 64.

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