SHAFAQNA – Beaten, forced to work, even sterilised — victims of a brutal policy that saw thousands of Swiss children taken from their families and mistreated completed Friday the process to have their demand for compensation put to a popular vote.
“I was 18 and had become pregnant when it happened,” said Bernadette Gachter, unable to hold back the tears as she described how she was forced by her host family and doctors to have an abortion and undergo sterilisation.
She was taken from her parents when she was very young — and now, 42 years later, came to Bern with other victims to present a petition to the government that will force a popular vote on whether Switzerland should pay them reparations.
From the mid 19th century until the early 1980s, hundreds of thousands of people, mostly children, were subjected to “coercion for the purposes of assistance”, effectively imprisoned, interned or taken from their families.
Why? They fell short of “traditional social and moral values”, or, like Gachter’s family, they were simply poor, according to Ueli Mader, a sociology professor at the University of Bern.
– ‘Beaten daily’ –
Seized by the authorities, the children were most commonly placed in homes or in farms, where they were forced to work on the land or as servants. Abuse was widespread, said Mader.
Wearing a bright red t-shirt with the words “Wiedergutmachung” (compensation), 85-year-old Charles Probst recalled how he was taken from his family and placed on a farm north of Bern. He was eight years old.
“I started to work on the farm before I was even 10, from 4:00 am until sunset. I didn’t go to school and I was beaten daily by the farmer who did not see me as part of his family,” he said.
Under Switzerland’s cherished system of direct democracy, citizens can put a “popular initiative” on any subject to a national public vote, provided it has the support of 100,000 people.
The compensation proposal, which would have the Swiss government put aside 500 million francs ($510 million, 415 million euros) for victims of the coercion policies, has received more than 110,000 signatures in eight months.
The text, which will now be put to a vote within the next two or three years, requests that payments be made to the some 20,000 victims who are still alive.
It also calls for an independent investigation into the subject and a public debate into this dark chapter of Switzerland’s history.
– Atoning for their own poverty –
“We believe a woman who was sterilised should receive compensation, whether she is rich or poor,” Pascal Krauthammer, who led the compensation campaign, told AFP.
Last year, Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga made a formal apology to the victims on behalf of the state of Switzerland, but made no proposal of reparations.
There is an emergency fund provided by regional authorities and other organisations, worth seven or eight million francs, but it is available only to elderly people in a precarious financial situation.
Asked why the policy endured so long, Mader blamed “the weakness of the children’s lobby” compared to that of the farmers.
There was also the fact that “for a long time people were held responsible for their own poverty. Their children had to atone for that”, he said.
By the time the policy ended, child labour on farms was also no longer a necessity thanks to the mechanisation of agriculture.
Whether the initiative for compensation succeeds remains to be seen. Some politicians, particularly on the right, are reticent.
“The majority of politicians here are not concerned with the have-nots, preferring to focus on the economy and the rich,” said socialist lawmaker Maria Bernasconi.