Switzerland marks 50 years of women voting

Switzerland will mark 50 years since women won the vote on Sunday -- dismally late for a country that prides itself on having one of the oldest democracies in the world.

Switzerland marks 50 years of women voting
Switzerland's women have only had the right to vote in federal elections for 50 years. Photo: DPA

The move came in 1971, more than a century after the first demands for universal suffrage in the country.

Swiss politicians including Justice Minister Karin Keller-Sutter hailed the progress made since then.

“February 7, 1971 marked the decisive step towards gender equality,” she said in a tweet.

“It was also the birth of the democracy we are so rightly proud of today: a complete democracy.”

EXPLAINED: What happened after Swiss women got the right to vote in 1971?

Ruth Dreifuss, who became the first woman to serve as president in 1999, stressed that the past half century had seen “the elimination of legal discrimination between men and women” in large part thanks to the votes cast by women.

Others, however, scoffed at the celebratory tone.

“We are doing this kind of memorialising of something that should in many ways be a national shame, because it came so late,” Eleonore Lepinard, a sociology professor at Lausanne University, told AFP. 

Women 'remained excluded' 

Indeed, Swiss women won the right nearly 80 years after women in New Zealand, 65 years after Finland and nearly three decades after France.

And even when Switzerland finally allowed women to vote at a national level, its federal system enabled the conservative canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden to continue barring women from participating in regional votes until 1991.

Photo: DPA

The delay is ironic in a country famous for having one of the world's oldest and most inclusive democratic systems.

Switzerland was among the first countries to introduce universal suffrage for citizens back in 1848, and soon developed its direct democratic system allowing citizens to regularly vote on a vast array of issues. But only men were considered citizens.

“Women remained excluded,” political scientist and Swiss female suffrage expert Werner Seitz told AFP. Switzerland's direct democratic system contributed to the slow progress towards women's inclusion, experts say.

To change the constitution and allow women to vote in the country renowned for its conservative and traditional values, a majority of male voters and a majority of the country's then 22 cantons had to give their blessing. 

'Spectacular' lack of will 

“It was a much higher hurdle compared to countries where a central government could just decide to let women vote,” said Isabelle Stadelmann-Steffen, a professor of comparative politics at Bern University.

Before 1971, dozens of popular votes were held at the municipal, regional and national levels on whether to let women participate.

Most failed. Experts agree that the Swiss government could have done more to push the process forward.

Instead, it showed “a spectacular lack of political will,” said Brigitte Studer, a history professor at Bern University and author of a fresh book on female suffrage in Switzerland.

Rather than pushing Switzerland towards true, inclusive democracy, the government promoted a series of arguments against the move.

Among the common arguments was the lack of room for women to participate in cantons like Appenzell, where voting still took place by raised hand at an open-air assembly known as the Landsgemeinde.

When Swiss women finally did get to vote, the country was lagging far behind its European peers in shedding other discriminatory laws.

It was not until a 1985 referendum for instance that men lost the legal authority to prevent their wives from working or opening a bank account. 

'Far behind'

Since then, Switzerland has caught up in a number of areas. Abortion was legalised in 2002 and 14 weeks of paid maternity leave was introduced three years later, followed last year by two weeks paid paternity.

And in the last elections in 2019, women won over 40 percent of parliamentary seats.

But women lag much further behind when it comes to company leadership positions, and the gender pay gap in Switzerland remains at a stubborn 20 percent.

With traditional values still deeply engrained in much of the country, efforts to simplify mothers' work-life balance are also often stymied in the polls.

This has resulted in a lack of public daycare options and school cafeterias in many cantons.

In this area, Switzerland is still “far behind”, Studer said, pointing out that a third of working-age women in the country are not in the labour force, and most of working women have part-time jobs.

Stadelmann-Steffen agreed and said the anniversary celebrations should be used to shine a spotlight on “areas where gender differences remain substantial”.

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Three scenarios: How Switzerland plans to fight a Covid resurgence

Swiss government has devised three contingency plans that could be implemented to fight a new outbreak. What are they?

Three scenarios: How Switzerland plans to fight a Covid resurgence
Authorities want to prevent overcrowded hospitals if new wave comes. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP

Although Switzerland relaxed a number of coronavirus rules from June 26th and 28th, “the pandemic is not over”, as Health Minister Alain Berset said at a press conference on Wednesday.

Berset said Switzerland should not become complacent, with last summer a warning against feeling that the battle is won. 

He added, however, that the new wave is unlikely to be as large as the previous ones due to the country’s vaccination campaign.

This situation leaves a degree of uncertainty for which the government wants to be prepared as well as possible, Berset noted.

The Federal Council established a “just-in-case” procedure on Wednesday for three possible scenarios that could take place in the autumn and winter. 

These plans focus mainly on the rapid detection of variants and the continuation of vaccination, testing, and tracing.

The best-case scenario: status quo

In this scenario, the number of cases remains at a low level, though small outbreaks are still possible.

The number of infections may increase slightly due to seasonal factors — the virus is known to spread slower in summer and faster in autumn and winter—  but does not place a significant burden on the health system.

If this happens, no measures beyond those already in place would be necessary.

READ MORE: ANALYSIS: Is Switzerland lifting its Covid-19 restrictions too quickly?

Not so good: more contaminations

In this second scenario, there is an increase in the number of cases in autumn or winter.

There may be several reasons for this, for example the large proportion of unvaccinated people, seasonal effects — people tend to stay indoors together in cold weather, and contaminations are easier — or the appearance of new, more infectious variants.

This situation could overburden the health system and require the reintroduction of certain measures, such as the obligation to wear a mask outdoors.

Booster vaccinations may also be necessary.

The worst: new virus mutations

In scenario three, one or more new variants appear, against which the vaccine or the post-recovery immunity are less effective or no longer effective.

A new wave of pandemic emerges, requiring strong intervention by the public authorities and a new vaccination.

Which of the three scenarios is most likely to happen?

The government hasn’t said, but judging by the comments of health officials, the latter two are the strongest contenders.

Firstly, because the highly contagious Delta mutation, which is spreading quickly through many countries, is expected to be dominant in Switzerland within a few weeks.

It is expected that the virus will spread mostly to those who are not vaccinated and, to a lesser degree, to people who have only had one shot of the vaccine, according to Andreas Cerny, epidemiologist at the University of Bern

READ MORE: How Switzerland plans to contain the Delta variant

Another concern is related to the appearance of the new variants which could be as or possibly even more contagious than Delta and not as responsive to the current vaccines.

The government said the best chance of avoiding the second or third scenarios is to ensure people are vaccinated. 

“Widespread vaccination of the population is crucial to relieve the burden on the healthcare system and to manage the epidemic. A possible increase in the number of coronavirus cases in the autumn will largely depend on the proportion of the population that has been vaccinated,” the government wrote in a press statement.

The government has also indicating it is preparing for booster vaccinations to take place in 2022 and are encouraging cantons to keep their vaccine infrastructures in place.