Zero tolerance for child-rearing violence

15 February 2022

In Switzerland, one of every three children suffers from physical violence inflicted as a «child-rearing practice». Violence related to bringing up a child is an expression of both feeling overwhelmed and, frequently, personal trauma experienced by the parents themselves when they were children. To break such a vicious circle calls for developmental work on the approach itself. This urgently requires expanded parental options. Only in this way does it become possible to achieve any sustainable change for the good of children. Priority for preventing violence must therefore be established at the societal level.


Wasn’t violence against children prohibited in Switzerland a long time ago?

While the Cruelty Act was in fact enacted as far back as 1978, «mild» violence for the purpose of raising a child remains inadequately addressed under criminal law even today. Swiss jurisprudence establishes that corporal punishment within the confines of a family situation should not be viewed as physical violence if it remains within a certain societally accepted level and is not frequently repeated. How is this societally accepted level assessed, however? This issue provides fertile ground for legal uncertainty. 

Moreover, children affected by violence today find themselves in a situation where their only option in defending themselves against «mild violence» comes from criminal provisions against violence in child rearing. Faced with conflicted loyalties since they generally do not want to see their parents penalized, children also lack the legal capacity to lodge a complaint. This can be asserted only by those holding parental authority. It is extremely unlikely that this would occur since such individuals are themselves the perpetrators.

Beyond physical violence, two out of three children in Switzerland are the victims of psychological violence as part of their upbringing. This occurs when a child is treated as worthless, unloved, unwanted or defective. But withdrawal of affection also represents a form of psychological violence: the child is regarded as loved only to the extent that he or she meets the expectations of others.


A timely slap in the face never hurt anyone

While this view is still widely held, it is in no way correct. Neurological studies have found that corporal punishment of children exerts a negative effect on brain development due to the emotional stress it inflicts on them. Children experience violence as threatening and existential. As the most vulnerable members of society, they depend for their development on the protection and care which adults provide. In addition, it has been shown that approximately one-quarter of all children who experience violence become perpetrators in their own right. Children learn by example.


How do children in Switzerland assert their right to live in a violence-free home?

Besides its enactment of the Cruelty Act in 1978, Switzerland also ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1997. In doing so, it committed itself to ensuring basic standards of child protection. All appropriate legislative measures must be taken to protect children against any kind of corporal or psychological violence related to their upbringing, whether this takes the form of mistreatment or neglect. The child’s right to protection is thus grounded in the law.  Switzerland has been repeatedly reprimanded by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child – most recently in its 2021 State Party Report – for failing to support violence-free parenting practices. 

A new solution needs to be found. One option is provided by the bill for «Violence-free Child-rearing in the Swiss Civil Code for Better Protection of Children», which has already been approved by the National Council and is presently being debated in the Council of States. 

This grounding in the Swiss Civil Code offers several immediate advantages: 

  • It sends a strong signal: a clear statement by Switzerland to the country’s children that child-rearing violence has not lost its importance. It is possible for a paradigm shift to take place.
  • The legislation provides a legal basis for judges. Legal uncertainty disappears. The «societally accepted level» becomes zero tolerance.  
  • Parents are not criminalised. Penal law criminalises the perpetrators. An article under civil law grants children the option to defend themselves without centrally involving them in the punishment of their parents. 
  • Cantons are given a justification for creating ways to assist affected parents and children in breaking out of the vicious circle of violence. 
  • A change in thinking takes place in society, and zero tolerance is able to become an established standard. 

A discussion with the child protection group of Zurich Children’s Hospital has revealed that physicians are frequently involved in cases in which they treat children affected by violence. And although violence has obviously been inflicted, such incidents are irrelevant under criminal law. This presently leaves doctors with virtually no means of offering help. If, however, it becomes clear under the law that violence against children is illegal in Switzerland, then an objective focus come into play.


Has this solution proven successful in other countries?

Sweden and Germany have already grounded violence-free child rearing in civil law and have consistently seen positive results. In Sweden, the proportion of parents using violence as a child-raising tool dropped from 51 to 8 per cent over 20 years. Findings in Germany also indicated that the law not only takes a critical approach towards violence itself but also creates an awareness of what counts as child-rearing violence.


Where do we stand on the new law?

In our counselling, we regularly confront situations where children affected by child-rearing violence are very loyal While they of course wish for the violence against them to end, they have no desire to criminalise their parents. When the children consult us, we advise them on their legal rights, make contact with on-site specialists, triage the cases into specialised services and continue to work with them until the required steps have been taken locally to allow them to grow up in a safe environment. This legal grounding strengthens children’s position going forward in the sense that we will now be able to counsel them that «this is illegal in Switzerland and you have the right not to suffer from violence. We will act on your behalf to ensure that this is also complied with and that you and your parents receive support to bring the violence to an end.» so that we will never again have to say, «This isn’t right, but it falls within the societal level and there is nothing that criminal law can do about it.»

Zero tolerance for violence related to the rearing of children is a societal  obligation. Children need the support of the entire society to turn into reality their entitlement to a caring home, protection and safety and a violence-free upbringing. Child-rearing violence and domestic cruelty are not private matters.