Uncovering the Truth about Bullying in Switzerland

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When people think of Switzerland, visions of majestic mountains, crystal clear lakes and lush countryside generally come to mind. This small yet influential country in Central Europe is known just as much for its world class ski resorts as it is for its international banking, making it a haven for the rich and famous.

Yet even in this modern, picturesque setting, problems with bullying can be found. Swiss residents face issues with bullying in schools, at work and online. Bullying is an international problem that few, if any, countries manage to escape today. Even though bullying is more prevalent in other European countries, such as the UK, its presence in Swiss schools and businesses is enough to cause concern.

Bullying: A Nightmare for Swiss Students

Approximately 5-10% of Swiss students suffer from school bullying, according to research studies in Valais, a canton in southern Switzerland. “This is just below the international average,” says Zoé Moody, a researcher at the University of Geneva’s Centre for Children’s Rights Studies, “but it’s fair to say that almost one student per class is affected.”

The fact that most bullying cases are not reported could mean these percentages are higher. Lack of reporting contributes to Switzerland’s bullying problem as it empowers bullies to do as they will without fear of being caught or punished.

Whether people are targets of school bullying, workplace bullying or cyberbullying, it does no good for victims to ‘suffer in silence.’ It’s only in reporting bullying incidents that action can be taken to remedy the problem. Without bullying information from teachers and students, Swiss schools can’t effectively calculate the extent of bullying in their institution or develop programs for how to deal with the problem.

School bullying affects Swiss schools across the country. The following examples give greater insight into the effects bullying has on students’ lives. In the case of Loane Gosteli, who suffered from school bullying in silence throughout her childhood and adolescent years,  bullying almost destroyed her life.

For 9 years Gosteli suffered such threats and taunts as “What are you doing here? You take up too much space. Go kill yourself!” from classmates in her village school in Jura. After her parents divorced, Gosteli developed a weight problem, making her a target of bullies for being fat. She was 6 years old at the time.

“The more other students would mock me,” Gosteli remembers, “the more weight I gained and the more they taunted me,” in a vicious never ending cycle. The bullying only intensified when Gosteli obtained a cell phone as classmates then began sending her ugly emails and texts.

The negative effects of bullying soon took its toll on Gosteli’s life. She began to do poorly in school and lost confidence and self-esteem. Overwhelmed by her situation, she attempted suicide. Fortunately, Gosteli was able to get help through professional therapy and move past her bullying experience to begin a new life. Now as an adult, Gosteli is speaking out about her bullying experience in the hopes she can help others suffering from the same plight.

Importance of Speaking Out

Raising bullying awareness, Gosteli feels, is a major step toward helping to prevent bullying in Swiss schools. In Charlène Kobel, Gosteli found a partner to work with in her efforts to put a stop to school mobbing. A former bullying victim herself, Kobel shared similar views on the psychological dangers of bullying and the need to protect young people from its damaging effects. Concerning her bullying experience, she says, “I was an easy target because I was sensitive and I cried easily, sometimes for no reason.”

Like Loane, Kobel told no one about being bullied, not even her family, as she feared retaliation. Over time, she secluded herself from family and friends and began to write stories about bullying and the tragic effects it can have on a young life.

Today the women do what they can to encourage bullied students to speak up. They’ve established a website called “Brisons le silence” which provides a platform for young people to share their bullying experiences and expose bullying behavior in their school. They also share their stories in local schools to raise awareness about bullying problems.

Why Bullying is a ‘No-Win’ Cycle

When it comes to bullying, no one wins. Bullies and victims suffer alike, howbeit in different ways. Bullying has been depicted as a tri-lateral relationship in which bullies, victims and witnesses all play a role. Sometimes people seem to be locked into their particular role, even after moving to a new city or changing schools within their canton.

Researcher Zoé Moody, who took notice of characteristics of each group after conducting a peer bullying study in Valais, made the following observations about the different roles people play in bullying:

“Victims often end up identifying with their role, for instance by keeping a low profile or by wearing loose-fitting clothes, which allows the bullying to take root over the long term.”

The long term effects of bullying can make it difficult for victims to adjust well into society. They often lack confidence to face challenges or tackle problems that arise in their adult life. Bullying can stunt people’s psychological growth and progress, hindering them from reaching their full potential. Such repercussions make it clear why efforts should be made to stop bullying at all costs.

Children and teens who bully in school, noted Moody, also face their share of problems. Primary bullying can easily lead to middle school bullying as children simply continue in this pattern. Middle school bullying can lead to high school bullying which often entails more verbal and physical aggression. Teen bullies run greater risk of committing criminal acts as adults. Research shows that 36% of teen bullies ages 13-16 eventually transition into delinquents between 16 and 24 years old.

Another trait bullies have in common is their lack of empathy.  Moody feels that because bullies have little to no compassion for others, they “have trouble integrating and developing socially. They are often feared by the group and their friendships are only based on the law of the strongest.”

Witnesses are often confined to their role as passive bystanders due to fear of getting involved. Moody claims that as much as 87% of school children in Switzerland witness bullying behavior at some time during their school experience. Most of these kids, however, don’t report bullying activities or intervene to help those who are targeted.

Regardless of why people bully, speaking up against the behavior is an effective means of curtailing bullying behavior. By taking a stance against bullying, students show perpetrators that their actions won’t be tolerated. Once bullying is exposed, teachers can take action to resolve behavioral problems.

Different Approaches to Prevent Bullying

At the beginning of every school year, students take stock of what to expect from their upcoming school experience. For some, the fear of bullying can be overwhelming. According to 2014 bullying statistics, 10 to 20% of Swiss students had been involved with bullying to some degree in school. Bullying behavior ranged from verbal insults and name calling to exclusion, physical attacks and sexual assaults.

In a 2015 Insider Monkey survey ranking the top 11 countries where bullying most occurs, Switzerland ranked #7 with such bullying behavior as destruction of private property, theft and physical violence. Today, children not only face the risk of traditional face to face bullying at local playgrounds and schools, but may encounter the threat of cyberspace bullying online.

EU reports indicate that one in every five teens between 14 and 17 years of age has been a victim of cyberbullying. Social media networks to include Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter – some of the most popular teen sites – all provide viable platforms for Internet bullying.

In countries where anti-bullying measures have been taken to combat this behavior, bullying percentages are fairly low. In the Netherlands, for example, a free helpline was established to provide bullying victims with counseling and support, making it easier for them to get through their ordeal. The helpline also provides counseling services to bullies who need help and guidance on how to stop their abusive behavior. These services have helped curtail bullying incidents in the country.

Norway, where bullying percentages are lowest, conducts anonymous surveys of school students twice annually to keep track of bullying activities in local schools. This information is released to teachers to keep them abreast of where and how bullying occurs so they can take appropriate action. This approach has been highly effective in exposing bullying behavior and curtailing abusive acts.

Individual teacher and student training can also help prevent bullying in Swiss schools. By learning more about what causes bullying and how to handle bullying, teachers can be more productive in resolving bullying issues that arise. Students can also benefit from training in anger management, social skills and how to assert themselves in a non-aggressive manner.

In a developed country like Switzerland, schools have ample resources to provide kids with a quality education. By taking measures to put an end to bullying, Swiss teachers can help their students succeed academically, socially and professionally as they integrate into Swiss society.

Switzerland’s Commitment against Bullying

As a member of the Council of Europe, Switzerland has a commitment to uphold the organization’s Charter on Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education. This Charter requires council members to “combat all forms of discrimination and violence, especially bullying and harassment”.

The Council of Europe sponsors various initiatives to combat school bullying and violence. One such initiative was the production of the video ‘Beat Bullying’, which exposes the dangerous effects of bullying. The video demonstrates the importance of human rights and education programs in equipping kids with essential skills to counter bullying activities.

The Council’s Youth Sector formulated a campaign to fight against ‘hate speech’ online. The campaign was designed to help mobilize young people to take action against violations dealing with racism and discriminatory acts. By getting youth organizations involved, the Council benefits from fresh ideas and input to finding long term solutions to bullying problems.

Is Discrimination an Issue in Switzerland?

Switzerland is a land of multicultural diversity. Its population is comprised of 22.3% foreigners (40% in the capital city of Geneva) from various lands, cultures and religions. The country even boasts of having four official languages. In a country with such a sundry population, there’s bound to be some form of discrimination.

LGBT Rights

In the 2016 Rainbow Europe report and yearly review by LGBTI support group ILGA-Europe, Switzerland ranked 23rd out of 49 countries that were evaluated for their record on gay rights. The report rated each country on national laws dealing with same sex marriages, LGBT adoptions and transgender people’s rights, among other issues.

Switzerland has recognized same sex ‘civil partnerships’ since 2007 and recently adopted legislation that permits gay couples to adopt a partner’s child(ren) from a former relationship. However, it has yet to legalize same sex marriages, making it lag behind many of its neighboring European countries. In fact, Switzerland met with only 33% of the equal rights criteria laid out by the review, a dismal finish for a highly developed country in Western Europe.

Switzerland adopted the Valletta Declaration of Intent – a document affirming the rights of LGBTI individuals – in 2014 on International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia. In a 2015 meeting, the Federal Council reiterated its stance against LGBTI discrimination in schools, business and government agencies.

According to Katrin Hugendubel, advocacy director of ILGA-Europe, much more progress needs to be made in the acceptance of the LGBTI community. “We need legal marriage for everyone and anti-discrimination laws,” he says. “You can’t move ahead on one thing and think the job is done. In the EU there’s a feeling that lack of equality is only happening outside of Europe, so this is a reminder that we’re not all on the right side of history quite yet.”

Racism in Switzerland

Racism is yet another issue that Switzerland faces in various cantons (districts) across the country. In 2012, seven of the country’s French and Italian speaking cantons – Geneva, Jura, Vaud, Neuchâtel, Fribourg, Ticino and Valais – initiated an anti-racism campaign under the mantra “Diversity-A Swiss Value?” to counter claims that racism was creeping back into Swiss society.

“It’s our common wish to pass a positive message about diversity,” said Gabriella Amarelle, the integration delegate for Lausanne, capital city of the canton of Vaud. The initiative focused on integration in Swiss schools, businesses, sports, housing and other sectors of society. Geneva also planned to launch an anti-racism hotline for victims of racism in the capital city.

There is concern, however, that Switzerland’s anti-racism focus is falling behind in the German speaking region of the country. “Depending on the canton, there are integration delegates in German-speaking regions and there are isolated anti-racism events, but there is no grassroots movement,” said Martine Brunschwig-Graf, President of Switzerland’s Federal Commission against Racism.

Journalist Hans Stutz, who specializes in discrimination issues, concurs:  “There is not much going on here in the German-speaking regions. In the French-speaking regions they are more intellectually oriented towards France and what happens there, while it’s different in German-speaking areas. It’s much harder to do grassroots work. There is much less support for activists and funding.”

Statistics from a Federal Commission against Racism report revealed that racism cases against Muslims and blacks rose in 2010.  In like manner, anti-racism groups reported a rise in racism cases against Jewish interests in 2011. However, a study by the Foundation against Racism & Anti-Semitism showed an overall drop in racist incidents for 2011 with only 66 incidents reported as compared to 109 incidents in 2010.

“In a certain way the situation has improved as a result of anti-racism work,” says journalist Stutz. “People are more careful about not going beyond the limits.” At the same time, Stutz believes “There is a great deal of defamation against Muslims but Muslim organisations in Switzerland don’t collect [joint] information; Jewish organisations are different.”

Muslim Students Face Discrimination in Swiss School

A recent situation concerning two Muslim students in a Swiss high school in the city of Therwil backs Stutz’s observation concerning Muslim racism and religious freedoms. Two Syrian teens refused to partake of the customary school teacher handshake at the beginning and end of class due to the teacher being female. The male teens felt touching a female teacher ‘went against their religious principles.’

Jürg Lauener, the school’s rector, reached what he felt was a fair compromise in excusing the teens from the ritual of handshakes altogether, be it with male or female teachers, to avoid a conflict with gender discrimination. The teachers’ union, however, staunchly disagreed with Lauener’s decision.

“The same rules should apply to all students,” said Beat Zemp, union president, adding that the students would more than likely be shaking hands with males and females, be they peers,  professors or work colleagues, as they transitioned into adults. Simonetta Sommaruga, Justice Minister of the country, also disagreed with Lauener’s decisions stating that “shaking hands is part of [Swiss] culture”.

The Syrian brothers, age 14 and 15, are part of a political refugee family who had been granted asylum in the country in 2001. The political debate that has ensued over this issue has resulted in Switzerland suspending the family’s citizenship process. Authorities in Basel-Country, where the city of Therwil is situated, confirmed that the family’s naturalization proceedings had, for the time being, been placed on hold.

When interviewed by news agencies, the teens insisted that touching females outside of their family violated their religious beliefs. Thus, obligating them to shake hands with female teachers would be discriminatory. “No one can force us to touch hands,” said one of the teens.

Switzerland currently has approximately 350,000 Muslims living in the country out of a population of roughly 8 million people. Previous school disputes concerning female Muslim students taking swimming lessons and wearing full-face veils have been resolved amicably. This latest occurrence once again raises the question of just how much Switzerland protects the religious freedoms of its citizens.

Even among different Muslim organizations and professionals, the topic of discrimination is questionable. Some conservative groups feel that refusing physical contact with women is ‘a sign of respect.’ Professor Elham Manea, a Swiss-Yemeni educator at the University of Zurich, feels this is only the viewpoint of fundamentalists. “It has nothing to do with respect,” she notes. “It has to do with a worldview that sees women as sexual objects.”

The Federation of Islamic Organisations in Switzerland (FIOS) stated that handshakes between men and women are “permissible theologically.” Handshakes could be viewed as a form of polite behavior which is fundamental to Islamic tradition.

The Swiss Central Islamic Council concurred with FIOS’ stance. At the same time, it recognized the fact that most scholars of classical Islamic law would disagree with male-female contact. The organization advised schools to be tolerant of Muslims who practice these traditional beliefs, especially if the beliefs had no effect on their education.

Dangers of Internet Bullying in Switzerland

For years, cyberbullying has been steadily growing ‘in the shadows’ in many European countries and Switzerland is no exception. News stories of online bullying offenses against young people in Switzerland and other European countries are bringing the dangers of cyberbullying to light.

According to Pro Juventute, a Swiss children’s rights organization that combats cyberbullying activity in the country, cyberbullying is taking its toll on Swiss teens, with one out of every five being subjected to cyberattacks. Most of these young people don’t know how to handle cyberbullying incidents or where to receive help. In many cases, lack of wisdom in posting personal information opened the door for teens to be targeted by predators online.

Pro Juventute operates a toll free emergency hotline (147) to provide counseling and support to Swiss youth who are bullied online. Over the last few years, the use of the hotline has risen significantly as more young people are becoming targets of online bullying activity. Swiss young people who frequent online social sites are at greater risk of being bullied via social media networks.

‘Stop Cyber-Mobbing’ Campaign

According to Pro Juventute director, Stephan Oetiker, cyberbullying, aka mobbing, has become an increasing menace to young people in Switzerland, leading to teen depression, anxiety and attempted suicide. Worldwide statistics show that the rate of teen suicides is double among young people who utilize online platforms than those who don’t. Pro Juventute cyberbullying reports indicate that there’s a great need for cyberbullying awareness programs in Swiss schools.

“Every day, Pro Juventute experts are confronted with the fact that young people, parents and teachers are overwhelmed by the subject and want urgent assistance,” Oetiker said.

In an effort to meet the pressing demand for greater awareness of Switzerland’s cyberbullying problem, Pro Juventute launched a national campaign against Internet bullying. The 2012 ‘Stop Cyber-Mobbing’ campaign utilized billboard and TV advertisements, school seminars and social media to get its anti-bullying message across.

The timing of the campaign coincided with the tragic death of Amanda Todd, a young Canadian teen who committed suicide due to malicious cyberbullying attacks. Amanda had posted a personal video on YouTube giving greater insight into her bullying ordeal and highlighting the dangers of making unwise decisions when socializing online.

“The suicide of Amanda Todd could happen in Switzerland just like anywhere else,” Oetiker warned, making it imperative that young people be aware of how cyberbullies operate in order to avoid their attacks.

Studies conducted by the GfK market research institute revealed how unknowledgeable Swiss people were about cyberbullying and the damage it could cause. Only one out of every two Swiss residents recognized the term and 70% of those polled had no idea where to go for help if bullied online. Only 25% of the French-speaking population had heard of the phenomenon at all.

Lack of awareness, however, doesn’t preclude cyberattacks. According to Oetiker, parents are often “not aware of the importance of the virtual world for their children because the real, physical world remains much more important for them.”

Consistent hotline activity indicates that young people are desperate for help with online bullying issues. Reported cyberbullying offenses ranged from online insults and lies to compromising photos, threats and intimidation and false accusations via social media, emails and texts. Sometimes the perpetrators were former classmates and friends; sometimes they were complete strangers trying to make a personal connection with young people to cause further harm. In some instances, cyber offenses started off as a mere joke and wound up escalating into a major campaign that caused serious consequences.

In their ‘Stop Cyber-mobbing’ campaign, Pro Juventute used a graphic video that likened computer clicks (depicting negative online posts) with cuts from a sharp knife on a person’s body. The video was designed to promote awareness of cyberbullying activity among Swiss society and the harm it can cause. The organization’s 147 hotline number remains open 24/7 to victims of cyberbullying, offering professional counseling and advice.

Cyberbullying Laws and Statutory Provisions in Switzerland    

Although there are no specific laws against cyberbullying in Switzerland, the Federal Council does take note of existing provisions that can be used to prosecute cybercrimes. Victims can use these provisions to report the following cyber offenses:

•          Illegal access to data processing systems

•          Computer fraud

•          Identity theft (obtaining and using personal data without permission)

•          Offenses against people’s personal honor

•          Willful acts of defamation

•          Threats

•          Extortion

•          Coercion

Incidents involving invasion of personal privacy can also be prosecuted under Swiss Civil Code. Victims should document these crimes as evidence against perpetrators and report them to local police for prosecution.

The Need for Educating Youth about Online Use

Many cyberattacks can be avoided by educating young people on how to use the Internet safely and wisely. Young people employ a number of unwise tactics in their online communications that could attract cyber bullies and get them into serious trouble. These include:

•          Befriending strangers online

•          Falsifying information on social sites

•          Posting provocative selfies to increase “likes”

•          Entering questionable chat sites

Young people should be aware that Internet usage comes with its share of risks. Such organizations as Swiss Crime Prevention and Action Innocence can help students appreciate the dangers of online usage as well as educate them on how they can protect themselves from online abuse. By keeping abreast of advancements in digital technology, teachers and parents can do their part to teach kids how to use the Internet responsibly.

Workplace Bullying in Switzerland

Workplace bullying and harassment is yet another hurdle Switzerland has to overcome. A 2007  Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development (CIPD) survey estimates that more than 50% of working women and 10% of working men have been victims of harassment at work in Switzerland. Swiss law defines bullying (or mobbing as it’s commonly called in Europe) as ‘systematic, hostile behaviour over an extended period of time which is meant to isolate, exclude or even remove a person from his/her place of work.’

Under Switzerland’s Federal Tribunal and cantonal courts, the following actions can be considered mobbing conduct:

•          Unfair dismissal of strong-willed employees due to unresolved personality conflicts

•          Professional disrespect; long term abuse and harassment

•          Undue pressure that prompts employees to resign

•          Humiliating job termination that leads to the spread of negative rumors

•          Unjustified criticism, ostracism and allegations

•          Exclusion; loss of job assignments; refusal to pass on important data for over 3 years

•          Noncompliance with work agreements; inconsistent warnings

Consequences of Mobbing

Switzerland seems to have a history of mobbing that encompasses employees, managers and executives of both local and multinational firms. Mobbing can have negative consequences for both employees and employers, although employees often get the shorter end of the stick.

Mobbing in multinational companies can lead to court proceedings which can be both expensive and time consuming for an employee. Employees who take their employers to court not only face uncertain legal outcomes but may find it difficult later on to find a new job. Mobbing has not only caused employees undue anxiety and pain, but has, under certain circumstances, led to employee suicide.

In a study conducted by the University of Zurich involving 63 countries and focusing on the ten year period between 2000 and 2011, researchers discovered that of the 230,000 annual suicides in these countries, approximately 45,000 were due to problems with unemployment. In other words, approximately one out of every five suicides was linked to unemployment.

Although Switzerland ranked fairly well in these ratings (one out of seven suicides linked to loss of employment), it still amounted to 150 cases of suicide annually, which shouldn’t be accepted in Switzerland’s modern society. In fact, workplace abuse should have no place in a civilized country such as Switzerland. Unfortunately, mobbing cases continue to surface with insufficient action being taken by local politicians.

A lack of organization among employees makes it difficult for them to defend themselves or take appropriate action. Many employees suffer in silence in order to keep their jobs. By allowing mobbing to continue, companies foster discontent among their work force and cultivate an unhealthy work culture.

How to Handle Workplace Bullying Disputes in Switzerland

Employees who suspect they are victims of mobbing should begin collecting evidence of their mistreatment. Such evidence could include instances of harsh communications, exclusion, verbal or physical harassment, etc. Employees can also get fellow workers to support them by backing up their documentation. In order to take legal action against a company, employees will need evidence of their wrongdoing.

In the case of mobbing by fellow workers or colleagues, employees should discuss the matter with their supervisor to see if the situation can be resolved. Sometimes personality conflicts can lead to misunderstandings that seem like bullying but actually are not. If supervisors cannot or will not take steps to remedy the situation, employees may need to present their case before their Cantonal Labour Inspectorate and put their complaints in writing.

Whether it’s a case of school bullying, office bullying or bullying online, victims should stand up for their rights. By accepting bullying problems as part of their culture, Switzerland lowers its standard of education, business and socialization.

Bullying is a destructive force that works from within to tear down a society. By taking measures to combat bullying, Swiss residents can establish stronger schools and a more effective business culture. The fight to eliminate bullying in Switzerland may be an uphill battle, but it’s well worth the try. Any steps schools, businesses and communities take today to unify the country will help protect and preserve the quality of its culture for generations to come.

Government agencies can also do their part by enforcing anti-bullying legislation currently in effect and seeing what new laws need to be passed to stamp out discrimination, racism and harassment. By instituting change that will curtail bullying behavior, Swiss residents can look forward to living in a more progressive, productive and cordial society.

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