GENEVA (AP) — Switzerland is grappling with how to respond to a ruling from Europe’s top human rights court that Swiss law unfairly discriminates against men — because widowers receive lower state allocation payments than widows do.
It has set in motion a debate about whether to give more money to men or pay less to women.
The Swiss legislature is confronted with a balancing act on how to fall into line with a European Court of Human Rights decision on Tuesday that found a middle-aged widower, Max Beeler, was unfairly stripped of his state allocations once his children became adults.
“The federal law on old-age and survivors’ insurance provided that entitlement to a widower’s pension ended when the youngest child reached the age of 18, whereas this was not the case for a widow,” the court based in Strasbourg, France, said. It found that the widower “had not been treated in the same way as a woman/widow.”
“He had therefore been subjected to unequal treatment,” the court added.
ECHR decisions generally require countries, like Switzerland, who are members of the Council of Europe to accept and apply its rulings — and Swiss legislators will now be tasked with adapting Swiss law to eliminate any discrimination against widowers.
Switzerland has often faced criticism for being too slow compared to other European countries to give equal status and rights to women — particularly when it comes to workplace pay. While the country adopted universal suffrage in 1971, one region — Appenzell-Innerrhoden — was the last in Switzerland to give equal voting rights to women in local elections, following a Swiss high court ruling in 1990.
This particular widower case had its origins in personal tragedy.
In the summer of 1994, Beeler and his Peruvian-born wife Maria were hiking along the bucolic Ebenzell peak in the Swiss Alps — located in Appenzell-Innerrhoden near the Liechtenstein border — when she slipped on a rocky stretch and fell 40 meters to her death, according to Swiss media.
Beeler, stricken by grief, opted to quit his job to care for his two daughters — aged 2 and 4 at the time — and benefited from state payments. When the younger daughter reached 18, those allocations stopped — prompting him to seek redress in the courts. He was 57 and hadn’t been in the job market for 16 years.
The Swiss government had argued that it was “justifiable to rely on the presumption that the husband provided for the financial maintenance of the wife, particularly where she had children, and thus to afford a higher level of protection to widows than to widowers,” the court said.
“In their view, the difference in treatment was therefore based not on gender stereotyping but on social reality,” it added.