Every year, thousands of children in Switzerland witness domestic violence between their parents or other family members. They suffer direct psychological abuse, sometimes resulting in life-long trauma. Even if these children are not directly affected by the physical violence themselves, they are still victims.
An article published in Switzerland’s Sonntagszeitung newspaper on 20 June 2021 provided a moving assessment of the situation for these children. They find themselves in situations of fear and powerlessness, experience conflicts of loyalty, and enter a state of shock. Where the police are called to deal with domestic violence incidents – figures which have been rising over the years – children are present in more than half of cases. The Swiss Federal Office for Gender Equality therefore estimates that some 300,000 children and young people are currently witnessing violence between their parents.
They are not receiving enough protection, and this failure urgently needs to be rectified. These children and young people need their own legal rights, separate to those of the parental victim who has suffered the physical violence.
Children in distress have to rely on the courage of others
In the Sonntagszeitung article, our managing director Irène Inderbitzin explained the central problem: “As a general rule, an extreme amount [of trauma] has to have occurred before children will turn on their own parents, as the parents will often pressurise them.” So these children suffer in silence. This makes it all the more important that outsiders keep a close eye on them and have the courage to speak up. Where can these children turn for support? And how can people who are aware of what is happening help them? Children and adults alike who are familiar with the circumstances can turn to us directly for legal support. In emergency situations, they can instead contact the police or the Child and Adult Protection Authority (CAPA), or the telephone helplines on 147 and 143, which are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
In the article, Irène Inderbitzin went on to explain why the authorities need to change their mindsets: “Unfortunately, the opinion that solely witnessing attacks should only be considered indirect violence is still widespread. But we have to recognise that these children are affected just as greatly and suffer direct psychological abuse.” Accepting this fact would mean that the police would have to involve the CAPA in every domestic violence incident where a child is present. The crucial point is that the psychological and physical violence is stopped. It is therefore vital that, on the one hand, children are given support by means of child protection measures such as psychological treatments, and on the other that the perpetrator can be made to take legal responsibility for their actions, both for the physical violence enacted on the other adult, and for the psychological abuse suffered by the child. To do this, we need criminal procedures in which the child is considered their own legal entity. The procedures must also be suitable for the involvement of children in order to protect these young victims. The best interests of the child must take precedence in all decisions and interventions ordered.
What is the current legal situation?
The Swiss government ratified the Istanbul Convention (in German) – the Council of Europe Convention on combating domestic violence – in 2017. The Convention explicitly discusses how children who witness violence within their families should be protected. However, implementation has been slow here in Switzerland, as we have seen above. On 18 June this year, the government published its first national report on the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention). The report also discusses the need for expanded protections for child witnesses. The Istanbul Convention calls for states to offer sufficient refuge locations for victims. Switzerland currently only has one designated home for girls in Zurich. Since the ratification, the Federal Council has established a fund to support projects and measures for preventing violence totalling around CHF 3 million per year. We will continue to work on this.
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We also recommend this podcast on the topic (in German).