Day Fifteen |Understanding dowry and dowry abuse in Australia

Manjula O’Connor, Jan Breckenridge, Sara Singh and Mailin Suchting

dowry abuse
Reproduced from Shutterstock via The Conversation

The practice of dowry usually involves the giving of money, property, goods or other gifts by one family to another before, during or any time after marriage. It is a universal practice. For example, Bombay Island – now called Mumbai – was a former Portuguese outpost which was gifted to England as dowry in the marriage of Catherine of Braganza to Charles II (and was later leased to the East India Company in 1668). 

In its modern day avatar, dowry as a practice has different customary characteristics across different communities. Dowry exchange in South Asian communities is characterised by the woman’s family providing goods (including but not limited to money, jewellery, furniture and appliances) to the man and his family. In North African and Middle Eastern communities, dowry is characterised by the man’s family providing goods (predominantly in the form of money or cattle) to the female and her family.

Dowry is an ancient practice most frequently associated with India, but in reality, it is a cultural practice globally. This blog mostly addresses dowry in the South Asian context. Dowry in ancient times originated as a form of ante mortem inheritance, meant only for the bride. In modern times dowry gifts are expected by the family of the receiver as well and has become a practice that is a product of patriarchy reinforcing gender inequality. Women activists have campaigned against dowry practices in India since 1961, recognising the toxic impact of patriarchy combined with greed, and growing evidence of serious violence, murders and suicides associated with dowry in India. 

The Australasian Centre of Human Rights and Health (ACHRH) has refined the definition of dowry as ‘substantial gifts’ in the context of a marriage, where the value of gifts is out of proportion to the income of either family and causes financial distress to the giver.

Dowry abuse 

The United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women has defined dowry-related violence as ‘any act of violence or harassment associated with the giving or receiving of dowry at any time before, during or after the marriage’.

Money is power and like any power is open to abuse in an unequal situation. Dowry is one such practice. Where there is gender inequality and unequal power between the bride and the groom, the path to violence against women, dowry related death-murder and suicide becomes possible. In the Australian context, the unequal power relations are in some ways magnified because the bride is usually a new immigrant to Australia and often on a temporary visa such as a partner visa or dependent visa of the groom (the sponsor). The groom commands a higher dowry value in lieu of Australian residency. To this extent, the immigration process can allow the groom to gain additional power over the bride. In addition, the sponsor holds the power to withdraw sponsorship, leaving the new migrant bride vulnerable to abandonment and threats of deportation. 

These issues are often compounded by lack of family and social protective mechanisms in their home country and the social isolation that many brides experience as new immigrants. There is emerging evidence that some perpetrators collect dowry in India and leave the brides behind in India, never sponsoring them. The exact figures of abandoned brides in India is not known. Similarly, there is no good data available on the numbers of women abandoned within Australia, including those who are tricked into returning back home.

The dowry gifts are often particularly ‘excessive’ when compared to the income and assets of the family giving them. Although the demands are often unstated there is expectation that oversized gifts will be given. ‘Insufficient’ dowry can be accompanied by acts of violence towards the woman and her family, or other acts of abuse including emotional and economic abuse, harassment or stalking to exact compliance with demands or to punish the victim for non-payment. In this way, dowry abuse differs from other acts of family violence in that a number of individuals can be involved in perpetrating acts of violence, including in-laws, former spouses and fiancés, and other family members. To this extent, dowry abuse is a cultural manifestation of domestic and family violence, and also a form of financial abuse. 

Perpetrators can conduct sham and fraudulent marriages, extort dowry and abandon the brides. These perpetrators escape accountability by hiding in developed economies such as Australia, the UK, USA, Europe, the Middle East and Singapore. However, the abandoned brides themselves go through severe trauma, are stigmatised, may experience a sense of failure. They are sometimes rejected by their own family, cheated of their dowry saved over many years, left pregnant and must manage resulting mental health issues. Sometimes they are duped into returning back to their country after migration. They have no rights to residency of the developed country their perpetrator/ husband lives in and no laws to protect them in this transnational space. 

Two of these women travelled from India to attend the Second National Dowry Abuse Summit and spoke about their painful, harrowing experiences. The Summit was hosted by the Australasian Centre for Human Rights and Health and UNSW Sydney and co-hosted by Harmony Alliance, InTouch, Australian Women Against Violence Alliance (AWAVA), Good Shepherd, White Ribbon and South West Sydney Local Health District and held in Sydney Australia on 22 February 2019. The women – who felt voiceless and powerless before – both have been accorded residency in Australia as special cases. Their experiences highlight, the need for and value of, systematic support for women impacted by dowry abuse. 

Dowry abuse in Australia

Dowry abuse is perceived as a growing problem in some communities in Australia. The Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence recently found that it was a particular concern in Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, and, increasingly, in Middle Eastern communities; it is, however, important to note that it is not confined to any one ethnic, cultural or religious group. Care is needed in public discourse so as not to stereotype or vilify one particular group. Migrant diaspora communities continue to engage in the practice of dowry as a central marriage custom. Migration status can be used to demand higher dowries which when not fulfilled result in abuse and violence.

The Commission noted that the extent of the practice is considerable in Victoria. The growing concern of the impacts of dowry abuse gave rise to a grass roots campaign against dowry and dowry abuse, with a petition raised by the ACHRH that demanded dowry abuse be included in the Family Violence Protection Act of Victoria as an example of economical abuse. In addition, community participatory theatre projects and a video titled have increased the community’s understanding of the issues. 

However, it appears that there is very limited understanding amongst the police, social workers and the legal profession in Australia as to what dowry is, how it is practiced, and how it may be linked to family violence. For example, in the case of one Indian woman who was ultimately killed by her husband, her complaints to police about dowry appear to have been misunderstood and the seriousness of the issue may have been downplayed due to lack of cultural awareness. This highlights the need for increased cultural awareness and greater education about dowry abuse for service providers in Australia 

Responses to dowry abuse in Australia

On 26 June 2018, the Australian Senate referred the practice of dowry and the incidence of dowry abuse in Australia to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee for inquiry. The Final Report of the Senate Inquiry into the Practice of Dowry and the Incidence of Dowry Abuse in Australia was handed down on 14 February 2019. It uncovered the practice was nationwide and recommended to include dowry abuse in Federal Family Law Act.

This Inquiry was preceded by a number of achievements, including the petition which was tabled in the Victorian Parliament on 13 May 2014 by Former Premier Ted Baillieu; the 2016 Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence Report, which made a recommendation to include dowry abuse as a statutory example of family violence; and extensive media coverage on dowry abuse. The Dowry Abuse Amendment Bill was tabled in the Victorian Parliament in 7 August 2018. Seven MPs from Lower and Upper house spoke in favour, and it became law on 29 March 2019 (see Family Violence Protection Act 2008).

Next year marks the 25-year anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. The Australian government’s progress Report to UN Women for the Commission in the Status of Women meeting in 2020 includes dowry abuse as a matter for action – it is worth noting that Australia is the first developed country to do so. 

There has also been an increasing level of awareness and sensitisation to the issue of dowry abuse in domestic violence service providers nationwide. The Second National Dowry Abuse Summit adopted a Dowry Abuse Resolution. A national group hosted by Harmony Alliance the peak Migrant Women’s Network was also formed to further the national awareness and education program around dowry abuse. Most recently, on 8 August 2019 the COAG endorsed the Fourth National Plan to reduce violence against women and their children. In it, dowry abuse is noted as a complex form of abuse in culturally and linguistically diverse communities (CALD) communities.

Next steps

The current domestic and family violence and family law systems are ineffective in responding to the legal issues reported to arise from the practice of dowry, including financial abuse, exploitation of the family, and divorce, custody and property settlement proceedings. In addition, nationwide education programs are lacking for front line workers, the police, judiciary, domestic and family violence service providers, and medical and health workers. 

There is a need for more systematic structural support for people impacted by dowry abuse. Services and supports (including legal, health, financial, housing, employment services) for dowry abuse victims need to be improved so that they are more accessible and better address the complex issues faced by victims of dowry abuse, and in particular, victims who are on temporary or dependent visas. 

The Migration Regulations 1994 (Cth) contain provisions that allow for individuals on certain temporary visas to apply for permanent residency if they have experienced family violence by their sponsor. However, not all temporary visa holders (such as individuals on a tourist visa, a dependent of a student, or a dependent of certain skilled migrant groups) are eligible to access these provisions. This limits the ability of many dowry abuse victims to access residency and means that women in the above categories have no access to support services such as Medicare, Centrelink, housing rights and sometimes work rights. 

Compounding this, many immigrant women who have experienced dowry abuse feel unable to return to their country of origin due to shame and stigma. They may also feel compelled to not return to their families who have paid huge amounts for their weddings and dowries. Many women are also told by their families not to return, which puts the women at high risk of mental illness and further abuse. 

Evidence put before the Senate Inquiry also highlighted the intersections between dowry abuse and modern slavery (for example, sexual and domestic servitude). Service providers need to have greater awareness of these intersections in order to develop more holistic and appropriate services for people impacted by dowry abuse. 

As this shows, there is currently limited legislation and service provision to protect victims of dowry abuse in Australia. Whilst there is action, more work still needs to be done to ensure the safety, financial security and wellbeing of victims of dowry abuse. 

Manjula O’Connor is a Psychiatrist with four decades of experience. She is also an applied researcher and a published author. Her primary area of interest for past 10 years has been family violence and mental health in immigrant communities. She chairs the Royal Australian NZ College of Psychiatrists Family Violence Psychiatry Network and is Honorary Senior Fellow at the Department of Psychiatry , University of Melbourne. Manjula co-founded the Australasian Centre for Human Rights and Health in 2012 and advocates against family violence in immigrant communities. Manjula led the public dowry abuse campaign in Australia that led to the inclusion of laws against dowry abuse in the Victorian Family Violence Protection Act and triggered the Federal Senate Enquiry into dowry abuse. She is a member of South Asian Community Ministerial Advisory Council Manjula is a White Ribbon Advocate. Manjula’s work has been cited in the Victorian Parliament and the Federal Australian Parliament several times. Manjula was a member of the steering group that organised the Second National Dowry Abuse Summit. 

Jan Breckenridge is an Associate Professor, Head of the School of Social Sciences, and the Co-Convener of the Gendered Violence Research Network, UNSW, Sydney. Jan’s research is oriented towards maximum impact in innovative social policy development, service provision and outcome measurement of effectiveness. Jan leads an evidence informed knowledge-exchange stream ‘Gendered Violence and Organisations’ which provides expert advice to government, private and third sector organisations on best practice policies and organisational response to employees and the management of customers affected by domestic and family violence, sexual assault and sexual harassment. Jan was a member of the steering group that organised the Second National Dowry Abuse Summit. 

Sara Singh Sara Singh is a Research Assistant at the Gendered Violence Research Network (GVRN) at UNSW, Sydney. She engages in research projects aimed at informing policy development and best practice responses to individuals and communities impacted by gendered violence. She was recently awarded a UNSW Scientia PhD Scholarship to examine dowry and bride price practices in the Indo-Pacific region.

Mailin Suchting is the Manager of the Gendered Violence Research Network (GVRN) at UNSW, Sydney. She has worked for over three decades in leadership, management, education and frontline roles shaping public sector policy and responses to the health and justice impact of domestic and family violence, sexual assault and child physical abuse/neglect on individuals. She has a particular interest in gender, culture, sexuality and intersectionality. A current focus is the Gendered Violence & Organisations stream at GVRN which offers a suite of services including policy advice, face to face training and eLearning to employers who want to address the effects of domestic, family and sexual violence on their employees and organisations. Mailin was a member of the steering group that organised the Second National Dowry Abuse Summit.

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