Sara Singh and Manjula O’Connor
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Sara Singh sits down with psychiatrist, researcher and advocate Professor Manjula O’Connor to talk about dowry abuse in the transnational context and the use of exit trafficking by perpetrators to abandon victim-survivors overseas.
In recent years, there has been growing awareness amongst policymakers, service providers and community members in Australia of the issue of dowry abuse. Defined as the use of ‘coercion, violence or harassment associated with the giving or receiving of dowry at any time before, during or after marriage’, dowry abuse is a form of domestic and family violence (DFV) that disproportionately affects women, girls and their families.
Whilst historically the practice of dowry in Indian societies was intended as a means of empowering women and providing them with a measure of economic and financial security as they began a new chapter in their lives as married women, in modern times the practice has been exploited by many individuals who utilise it as a tool for obtaining and/or accumulating wealth and money.
Research has highlighted how men and their families may make excessive demands for dowry and perpetrate various forms of abuse against women and their families to coerce them to accede to their dowry demands. At the same time, perpetrators may abuse women in retaliation for providing what they perceive to be ‘inadequate’ or ‘insufficient’ dowry.
“If the groom or his family believe that the amount of dowry given was not sufficient, then that starts to give rise to all kinds of abuse, including demands and extortion”, says O’Connor, who has spent more than a decade supporting women who have experienced dowry abuse in Australia.
According to O’Connor, one of the main factors facilitating the perpetration of dowry abuse is the power imbalance that often exists between perpetrators and victim-survivors. In transnational marriages, this power imbalance is often heightened, creating further opportunities for abuse. Research has highlighted how globalisation and international migration have generated and reinforced inequalities in power, status and socioeconomic opportunities between countries and regions. These inequalities can have implications for marriage and dowry negotiations.
O’Connor highlights how non-resident Indian (NRI; i.e., an individual with Indian citizenship who has migrated to a foreign country) men living in Australia may be perceived by residents in their country of origin as highly attractive candidates for marriage due to their NRI status and the potential social and economic opportunities that their residency in Australia provides. In these circumstances, NRI men may leverage their Australian residency status to demand greater dowry from women and their families. “The marriage prospect of an Australian resident back in South Asia…for example in India, they are very good…” says O’Connor. “They are seen to be far superior as compared to the local grooms and that increases the value of the groom in terms of the dowry amount.”
In many cases of dowry abuse in transnational contexts, the victim-survivor may also be reliant on the perpetrator for visa sponsorship into the country the perpetrator is residing in. This dynamic contributes to the power imbalance between the perpetrator and the victim-survivor, creating further avenues for abuse.
O’Connor notes how perpetrators, for there may be multiple, may exploit their position as the victim-survivor’s visa sponsor to demand additional dowry. These demands may be reinforced by threats by the perpetrator to withdraw their sponsorship of the victim-survivor’s visa if the victim-survivor does not accede to the perpetrator’s demands. In this way, perpetrators coerce and control victim-survivors, and instil a sense of fear in them.
O’Connor also highlights cases where the perpetrator has, after receiving large amounts of dowry from the victim-survivor and her family, tricked or coerced the victim-survivor to return to her country of origin, and then abandoned her there and withdrawn sponsorship of her visa, leaving her unable to re-enter Australia. “What I have seen is that there are some grooms who are able to fraudulently send their wife back home under false pretense, and when she’s there, have removed their sponsorship and cut off all connections with her and confiscated the dowry given”, says O’Connor.
This tactic of deceiving or coercing victim-survivors to return to their country of origin, and subsequently abandoning them there, is termed ‘exit trafficking’. Defined as the use of coercion, threat or deception to make an individual leave the country, exit trafficking is a criminal offence in Australia (see s 271.2(1A), Sch 1, Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth)), with offenders liable to a maximum sentence of 12 years imprisonment if found guilty of the offence.
Despite the criminalisation of exit trafficking in Australia, however, community awareness around the issue remains low. Victim-survivors of exit trafficking are often unaware that the perpetrator’s conduct amounts to a criminal offence and that they can be supported to legally re-enter Australia.
“Most women do not know that they are able to return back to Australia under this particular law which says that exit trafficking is illegal and a criminal offence”, states O’Connor.
Currently, multiple services in Australia assist victim-survivors of exit trafficking. The Australian Federal Police (AFP), for example, investigates cases of exit trafficking, supports victim-survivors, and offers referrals to other relevant support services. One such support service is the Australian Red Cross, which is funded by the Department of Social Services to run a support program for individuals who have experienced trafficking. The ultimate decision around whether a victim-survivor of exit trafficking can stay in Australia rests with the Department of Home Affairs.
As O’Connor notes, more work needs to be done to develop community awareness around the issue of exit trafficking in the context of dowry abuse, so that victim-survivors are aware of their legal rights under Australian law and can access appropriate services for support and assistance. “I think that the most important thing is education of the community and women”, says O’Connor. “It’s very important that [victim-survivors] are given the information that in the case of domestic violence or any threats of trafficking that they should connect with the police and relevant services straightaway”.
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 an Honorary Associate Professor at the Department of Psychiatry, University of Melbourne, as well as an Adjunct Professor at the UNSW School of Social Sciences. 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, and aa 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.
Sara Singh is a Research Assistant at the Gendered Violence Research Network (GVRN), UNSW Sydney. She has a Bachelor of Laws (LLB) and a Bachelor of Criminology and Criminal Justice from UNSW and has worked across various research projects in the fields of criminology and social work. She is interested in research aimed at informing policy development and best practice responses to individuals and communities impacted by gendered violence and has undertaken research in areas such as domestic and family violence, and economic and financial abuse. In 2020, Sara was awarded a UNSW Scientia PhD scholarship. Her PhD research explores perceptions and experiences of dowry and dowry abuse of women from Indian communities in Australia.