17 January 2003


Press Release

Committee on Elimination of

Discrimination against Women

596th Meeting (AM)



Delegation Responds to Questions

Posed by Experts on Swiss Compliance with Convention

Federalism in Switzerland was not a hindrance to social change, but, on the contrary, had led to genuine progress, representatives of Switzerland told the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women this morning, as they responded to the comments and questions posed by Committee experts on Tuesday, 14 January.

In the Tuesday meeting, the Committee had considered the combined initial and second periodic report of Switzerland on compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, as it continued its twenty-eighth session.

Introducing the delegation’s responses today, Patricia Schulz, Director of the Swiss Office for Equality between Women and Men, said the delegation realized it was necessary to explain the Swiss federal system and its direct democracy, which might seem confusing and obstructionist to non-Swiss, but had led the way out of partisan and religious strife in the nineteenth century.

Often the cantons originated new and diverse ideas through their role of experimentation, she said.  For example, the right to vote for women was introduced in succeeding cantons, making it possible to finally introduce it at the federal level with the support of the populace.

In the pluri-lingual and multi-cultural society of Switzerland, she said, the consent of the people was critical.  Bureaus and commissions for equality were essential to promoting change, but meaningful change itself was only possible if it came from the ground up.  That was the only way to truly improve the situation of women in such areas as representation and employment, and to combat violence and other crimes.

Other representatives in the Swiss delegation responded to specific questions and comments of Committee experts in all the areas covered by the Convention.  They said that quotas for equal representation of women in legislative bodies were eschewed as violating the right to choose, but other strategies had been found to promote women's equality in that area. 

Regarding equal pay, they said that in a relatively sluggish economy, women's pay had been rising at a slightly faster pace than that of men, though it remained lower.  They also outlined training programmes for police and other strategies that were being implemented to counter domestic violence.

In regard to the issue of special visas for cabaret dancers that had raised concern on Tuesday, a delegation representative said that, without such visas, such women would go underground and evade regulation and protection.  There was a minimum age of 20 for such work, as well as monitoring and regulation of cafes.  She said there were no simple solutions to such complex problems.

The Committee will meet again on Monday, 20 January, to discuss the fifth and sixth periodic reports of Norway on compliance with the women’s anti-discrimination Convention.


The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this morning to hear replies by representatives of the Government of Switzerland in response to questions posed by the Committee on Monday, 14 January.  [For background information, see Press Release WOM/1373 of 14 January.]

Response by Swiss Delegation

PATRICIA SCHULZ, Director of Switzerland’s Federal Office for Equality between Women and Men, said that the 1847 religious war had led to a system of balance between the Confederation and the cantons.  Any change to the Constitution or to the law required the consent of the electoral body.  In general, the Government was more progressive than the Parliament and the Parliament more progressive than the people, which explained the slow pace of changes in the area of equality.  While Switzerland might be slow, it was serious. 

Another delegation representative said she had been struck by the observation that federalism was an obstruction to the implementation of the Convention.  According to the principle of devolution, the cantons shouldered both tasks and rights.  Cooperation between the cantons and the Confederation was tight and was on a voluntary basis.  If there was a contradiction in juridical norms, federal law prevailed.  The Confederation guided the cantons when their interests or competencies were involved.  The cantons, however, had to directly apply new programmatic norms in a reasonable time frame.  If a canton did not do so, citizens could go to the courts.  The Confederation could remind cantons of their duties or provide them with directives.  In specific cases, it would try to convince uncooperative cantons using non-binding means.

Any modification of the federal Constitution required the approval of a double majority of the population and the cantons, she said.  While citizens had broad participation in the country’s policies, mechanisms were required to forge opinions.  Was federalism a hindrance?  On the contrary, the cantons were often the precursors of new ideas and their prompt implementation.  The cantons carried out federal legislation.  For example, the offices for equality were originally established in the cantons.  Cantons had also initiated programmes to fight conjugal violence. 

Another representative continued, saying that on the implementation of the Convention, Switzerland had a monistic tradition.  Domestic and international law created a uniform legal order.  Norms of international law had been an integral part of the Swiss legal order.  Regarding the legal protection of fundamental rights, Switzerland did not have a constitutional court.  There was, however, constitutional monitoring of federal laws.  When the Federal Council examined a case, a paragraph was always reserved as to whether or not the bill was in keeping with the Constitution.  The Constitution was of primary importance and had contributed to the development of individual liberties. 

On jurisprudence in the realm of equality, another representative said, the assertion that there was differentiated treatment between men and women was only relevant when a functional or biological issue was at issue.  That concept remained unclear.  The danger of applying stereotypes was recognized.  No ruling had admitted such a difference as a justification for unequal treatment.  For example, night work for women, once prohibited, was now allowed.  Only one federal case had involved the Convention in cases of biological differences, because the Federal Tribunal was based on the principle that the Convention covered article 8 of the Constitution.  Article 1 of the Convention had not been reiterated in the Constitution, because the Constitution did not contain any definitions.  The definition provided by article 1 would provide inspiration for judges in deciding cases of discrimination against women.

For an explanation of reservations, she referred the Committee to its written reply, which provided technical explanations.

Switzerland had participated in preparatory work for the Optional Protocol, and was, in principle, in favor, another representative noted.  The Federal Council was convinced it was essential to establish a system of effective monitoring to promote human rights.  The procedure of individual communication in terms of the women’s anti-discrimination convention was before Parliament for approval.  The Federal Council wished to obtain approval before signing the Optional Protocol.  Ratification of international treaties required the consent of both chambers of Parliament.

Regarding questions of inequality, Ms. SCHULZ said there was the Federal Bureau for Gender Equality, the Federal Commission for Women’s Issues, cantonal and municipal offices and the offices within the Swiss Confederation on equality.  The ratification of the Convention had not affected those institutions.  The Bureau was within the federal administration.  She participated in meetings of office directors, and was in direct contact with them.  The Bureau could not provide orders to other offices of the administration or cantonal offices.  Its budget had increased considerably.

Another representative said the Federal Commission on Women’s Issues was an extra-Parliamentary commission to analyse the status of women, carry out studies and make recommendations.  It also welcomed draft legislation on equality and provided proposed changes.  Resources for the cantonal and communal offices for equality varied. 

Regarding stereotypes, another delegation representative said efforts to achieve equality and the right of women to vote had been delayed because of major legislative changes, for example, the change of marriage rights.  It was impossible to establish a cause-and-effect relationship on the late right to vote and the pervasiveness of stereotypes.  Also, they did not have statistical data on discrimination against immigrant women.

Another delegation representative said the educational system in Switzerland might seem complicated, but there was an equal enrolment of women and men.  In some higher education there had been more men, and in some schools there had been a higher proportion of women.  Only university studies had been analysed in that way and the proportion varied field by field.

Regarding media, a delegate said that advertising was self-monitoring, but any individual had a right to complain to a committee on the issue, concerning any advertisement.  The percentage of women working in the media had been going up, but had only risen to around 15 per cent of administrative positions.

The percentage of women working in federal institutions was 25.4 per cent in 2002, according to another representative, but there were large male-dominated areas included in those figures.  A more overall figure would be around 40 per cent.  In all areas, however, the figures continued to rise.  There were flexible working arrangements and family support, and a table of figures on that area had been included in the written response.

Employment and wage opportunities were not well surveyed, a delegate said, but job equality was definitely on the agenda of the cantons and the communes now, and those governments were working with experts to redress inequalities.  The State had little power to regulate such matters, however, and national progress in the area had to be promoted by unions.

Regarding a decision of the Supreme Court that had reinforced stereotypes, a representative said there had been much protest, but because of the independence of the courts, that judgement had been allowed to stand.  There was work being done to mitigate its effect, however.  With regard to protection of domestic workers, laws in that area only related to artisanal work.

A representatives said that recent work on creating awareness of domestic violence had greatly increased since the 1977 report on the subject.  Police training in that area was mostly done by the cantons, but on the federal level sentences for such crimes could be stiffened.  A number of cantons had set up interdisciplinary working groups to address the problem.  In 2003, a major awareness campaign would be launched with the message that domestic violence was intolerable and a crime.  Some 100 police from the cantons were given training in the subject last year and internal courses were now under way in the cantons.

Concerning the situation of foreign workers, particularly special visas for cabaret dancers, the delegation said that taking away those visas would mean that such women would then go underground and evade regulation and protection.  There was no simple remedy to such a complex problem.  After their permits had expired, visa holders must leave Switzerland, but may return the following year.  There was a minimum age of 20 and there was monitoring and regulation of the cafes.

There were no indications that prostitution had increased due to the enslavement of individuals, a representative said, although the phenomenon of false marriage was increasing.  It would be difficult to establish asylum for victims of trafficking in persons, but Switzerland was committed to protecting such victims and a bill was being introduced to help victims reintegrate.  A new article on enslavement would include more kinds of cases.  The minimum sentence now for trafficking in persons was six months and could go up to 20 years.  Sentencing was, therefore, thought of as adequate. 

There were associations to deal with victims of female genital mutilation in Switzerland, a representative said.  Cases had been found among immigrants from countries where the operation was performed.

Fixed, results-oriented quotas in elected representation was considered, in Switzerland, a violation of the rights of citizens to choose, said a delegation representative.  In court action concerning quotas, the Convention was taken into account and it was found that there were other strategies that could be applied.  Positive measures to increase the proportion of women had been taken at the three levels of government.

Regarding economic equality, a representative said that the economy of the country had recently been less dynamic than the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, but there had been a greater proportional increase of women’s salaries over men’s.

Concluding, Ms. SCHULZ recalled that Switzerland had embarked upon the long road to equality.  Many things had been achieved.  The implementation of formal and material equality was a work in progress without end.  Issues of equality were constantly evolving.  In a multicultural society, respect for minorities was essential for the adhesion of society.  To go forward, at the federal, cantonal and communal levels, the consent of the people was crucial.  Significant change was only possible from the bottom up; from the population to the cantons to the federation. 

To ensure the implementation of the principle of equality and guarantees provided by the Convention, bureaus and commissions for equality must be active and provided with adequate resources, she added.  A comprehensive approach of gender mainstreaming was also necessary.  The Committee’s comments would be beneficial in improving the situation of women.  The report had provided an opportunity to become aware of what had been achieved and what remained to be done.

Committee Chairperson, FERIDE ACAR of Turkey, thanked the delegation for its report and the great effort it had taken to respond to the expert’s many questions.  She was impressed with the systematic tackling of the Committee’s questions.  The Committee looked forward to the definition of discrimination becoming incorporated into the Swiss legislative and judicial system.  She found it difficult to understand why Switzerland had not carried out studies on discrimination against immigrant women.  Those women were often faced with double or triple discrimination on the basis of their race, sex, ethnic and religious affiliation.  They were also often subjected to discrimination on the basis of the traditions of their own communities.  The Convention placed responsibility on governments to take all necessary measures for the elimination of discrimination against immigrant women.  She urged the Swiss Government to look into the matter and to collect statistics on employment, education, health and violence against women in immigrant communities.

She said the Committee also urged the Government of Switzerland to review its reservations to the Convention, with a view to withdrawing them as soon as possible.  She was glad to hear that the Government favored the Optional Protocol and hoped the process of obtaining the opinion of the cantons would not take too long.  She urged the Government and civil society to undertake efforts to raise awareness at the cantonal level to create a favourable environment for the support of the Optional Protocol.

Ms. SCHULZ thanked the Committee for its scrutiny of the Swiss system.  There was, perhaps, a misunderstanding on statistics regarding immigrant women.  There was information on their situation in employment and in training.  The delegation would do its best to provide in-depth information in the next report.

Another delegation representative added that, while there were few statistics on immigrant women at the national level, that did not mean the Government did not have measures.  The cantons were very aware of the issue.  Some cantons had a 20 to 30 per cent immigration rate.  Women immigrants were indeed very vulnerable.  Many measures were taken at the cantonal level for training and integration, especially linguistic integration.  Language courses were offered.  However, she accepted the need to strengthen measures and make them more visible. 

Members of Delegation

Patricia Schulz, Director of the Federal Office for Equality between Women and Men, Head of Delegation;

Charles Naudi, Head of International Affairs and Analysis Section, Office of Foreign Affairs, Federal Department of Justice and Police;

Corina Müller, Head of the Legal Service, Federal Office for Equality between Women and Men, Federal Department of the Interior;

Sylvia Haug, Scientific Advisor, International Affairs Service, Federal Office for Social Insurance, Federal Department of the Interior;

Jeanne Ramseyer, Scientific Advisor, Principle Division of Public Rights, Federal Office of Justice, Federal Department of Justice and Police;

Christoph Spenlé, Scientific Advisor, Human Rights and Humanitarian Law Section, Directorate of International Public Law, Federal Department of Foreign Affairs;

Rachel Groux, Second Secretary, Permanent Mission of Switzerland to the United Nations;

Elisabeth Freivogel, Lawyer, Vice-President of the Federal Commission for Women’s Issues;

Monika Dusong, State Counsellor, Head of the Department of Justice, Health and Security of the Canton of Neuchatel.

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For information media. Not an official record.