Criminalize psychological violence

Psychological violence is at the heart of the “16 days against violence against women” campaign. Raising awareness of the issue is important. And a separate criminal offense is needed to better protect victims of psychological violence.

Women experience psychological violence in many different ways: as accusations, threats, humiliation, intimidation and much more. Perpetrators who use this form of violence want to control women, discriminate against them and make them dependent.

We know that many women are affected by psychological violence, especially in the home and within relationships. We are also seeing an increase in digital violence against women, for example in the form of cyberstalking. But there are still no figures available. Why is that?

Less visible violence
Psychological violence is usually carried out verbally and is therefore less visible than physical violence. The consequences borne by the victims are also often difficult to recognize from the outside. Another key point is that psychological violence receives little legal attention. For example, Switzerland lacks a separate criminal offense for psychological violence in order to prosecute perpetrators.

This is why today’s criminal law applies the criminal offenses of bodily harm, coercion and threats in cases of psychological violence. However, this does not adequately capture psychological violence. This is because assault, coercion and threats are individual acts. In the case of psychological violence, however, it is not so much individual acts that affect a victim. The attacks themselves are often not particularly far-reaching. What leads to serious impairments is the totality of such acts. Their effect can add up over a long period of time. Therefore, the existing criminal offenses such as bodily harm or threats are clearly not sufficient.

The narrow view of individual acts also entails the danger that they are trivialized or even regarded as behaviour between lovers. This is despite the fact that it involves the exercise of power and control.

Unsatisfactory situation
As a result, people who use psychological violence can only rarely be convicted of the aforementioned offenses. This situation is extremely unsatisfactory.

The fact that the criminal law will be amended in the near future to include the offense of stalking – the draft for a corresponding revision of the law is available – does little to change this situation. This is because stalking only covers a small area of the broad spectrum of psychological violence.

Switzerland has signed the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. In the Convention, the parties undertake to “ensure that intentional conduct that seriously compromises the psychological integrity of a person through coercion or threats is punishable.” The explanatory notes to the Convention specify that this does not have to refer to a single event. Rather, it refers to a pattern of behavior that is practiced over a certain period of time.

A separate criminal offense
In order for Switzerland to assume its responsibility for victims of psychological violence, the current criminal law must be adapted. Psychological violence must be made a punishable offense. This requires a separate criminal offense. This means that victims of psychological violence can be better protected under criminal law and victim protection is strengthened. In addition, the topic receives the necessary attention, which also facilitates prevention measures.