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“We still have problems we need to solve”

The UN's Universal Children's Day focuses on making life better for the children of the world Keystone

The welfare of children in Switzerland is generally good, but according to the head of the Swiss Foundation for Child Protection improvements are still needed to prevent abuse and peer-to-peer violence.

Speaking to on the occasion of the United Nations’ Universal Children’s Day, Kathie Wiederkehr, the head of the foundation, says child protection may not be seen as a major issue in Switzerland but it has gained in attention over the past 20 years.

In a report looking into the issue in 2008, the Federal Social Insurance Office noted that “by international standards, general conditions are very favourable for young people growing up in Switzerland”, and problems faced by children and youth “receive a particularly high level of public attention”.

With Switzerland’s federalist system, coordination of child protection on a national basis is a problem, the Federal Commission on Child and Youth Affairs noted in 2010. The country’s 26 largely autonomous cantons have the main responsibility for policy and as a result have different approaches.  

Nationally, violence and abuse continue to be issues. Corporal punishment is not forbidden by law in Switzerland and back in 2004, Fribourg University researchers found that 40 per cent of children under the age of four were given corporal punishment on a weekly basis.

When it comes to child abuse, last year a Zurich University study indicated that prevalence rates in Switzerland were high, but comparable to rates of other European countries. In another study into child sexual abuse, due for completion in April 2013, Zurich University researchers expect to find that it occurs in up to 15 per cent of girls and up to five per cent of boys. People probably don’t generally think of Switzerland when they think of countries where children need protection. What sorts of issues do Swiss children face?

Kathie Wiederkehr: There are different problems, but for instance children here in Switzerland suffer from domestic violence, from sexual abuse, from psychological violence. Parents who get divorced sometimes use their children or put them under pressure [in the course of the divorce]. What we also have is internet violence peer-to-peer, where the children make fun of each other, or also sexual exploitation of children by adults over the internet. Your organisation produces position papers and does lobbying. How interested are Swiss politicians in promoting legislation that supports children?

K.W.:  For every session we write recommendations. Quite a lot of parliamentarians say: “Oh, I didn’t realise that law has something to do with child protection or with children’s rights.” So it’s not a major issue, but it’s much more recognised than 10 or 20 years ago. A new child and adult protection law comes into force on January 1, 2013. What is the most important change to the legislation?

K.W.:  It has to do with local guardianships [of vulnerable children and adults] (see sidebar). Up until now, quite often the guardians were not professionals. They served for political reasons. And if it was a small town they knew each other. And so you perhaps had a case with somebody saying, “This man sexually abused this child,” and they said: “Oh, no, not him. I know him from the restaurant and it’s no problem.” And now the big change is we will have regional authorities, and they will be [staffed by certified] professionals, so they can handle complicated cases much better and much more professionally. So I think that’s a very important step.

We already tried [to get a law on nonviolent childrearing accepted] in parliament in 2006, and we weren’t successful, but we’ll try again. We’re planning – if we get the funding – a huge Swiss-wide campaign. We’d like to get everybody talking about the topic. Does your organisation also work outside Swiss borders – for example, on the issue of sex tourism?

K.W.: We’re not doing work outside, but we’re doing work for the outside. For example, travel agents can sign up to the child protection code. We conduct training so that the staff really know what they can do to avoid working with hotels that allow child abuse or sexual abuse in other countries. We show them how they can recognise it, and what they have to do if they recognise it. Universal Children’s Day has existed for more than half a century. Have the issues faced by children in Switzerland changed a lot in the past 20, 30, 50 years?

K.W.: Oh yes. Have you seen the movie Der Verdingbub (The Foster Boy)? Children whose parents couldn’t look after them were sent to farmers and really were used as cheap labour. It seems like it’s 200 years ago, but actually it’s just 50 or 60. There, you can really see the changes.

Also, parliament produced a report on child abuse in 1997 – not that long ago – which warned against prevention, because it was considered to be interfering with families. I think that has changed.

More and more, people think, “Yes, several things are going very well”. But we still have some problems that we have to solve.

As of January 1, 2013, a new version of a 1912 Child and Adult Protection Law will go into effect which restructures the system for guardianship of minors and of adults who are mentally incompetent. Previously, these positions were often held by laymen. The new system will focus on professionalism and interdisciplinary cooperation.

The United Nations adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child on November 20, 1959, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child on November 20, 1989. Switzerland ratified the UN Convention in 1997. Article 44 requires that states provide a report to the UN at regular intervals detailing their progress, problems, and plans to deal with the remaining challenges.

The Swiss Foundation for Child Protection is dedicated to protecting children throughout Switzerland from violence. It conducts prevention projects and campaigns, and engages in lobbying, public relations, education and networking. As a member of ECPAT (End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism) Switzerland, it works to stop child prostitution, pornography and trafficking.  

Over 80 countries mark this day, but Switzerland is not officially one of them. According to Kathie Wiederkehr one reason is the lack of co-ordination needed to decide who should plan events. However, her foundation – which is also celebrating its 30th anniversary this year – is hosting a conference on the day. Among the topics to be covered are Sweden’s success in doing away with corporal punishment.

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