(Article taken from The Age, Friday May 23, 2014, written by Rachel Kleinman)
The dowry 'has huge links to domestic violence'. Photo: AP
Indian women living in Australia suffer domestic violence stemming from a tradition that some say should be
Jessica* came to Australia in 2012 after an arranged marriage in India. Her Indian husband already had permanent residency here and she left her family and country behind to start a new life with him in Melbourne's western suburbs. Back home, Jessica had completed postgraduate studies, she had a career and came from a family with liberal values. Now, just two years later, she is separated, recovering from the trauma of domestic violence and locked in a long legal battle to claim her dowry, which remains in India in the hands of her husband's parents. ''This is just a kind of torture for me and my family,'' Jessica says. ''I am all alone here. At least if I get back my dowry articles that would be fine … It would give me back a bit of financial security.'' To make matters worse, Jessica came here on a spousal visa. When the marriage broke down, her husband wrote to the Immigration Department saying he wanted to revoke his sponsorship of her. If she returned to India, Jessica would face the social stigma of being divorced. She is now applying for permanent residency, which her visa allows if she has suffered domestic violence.
Many Indian women in Australia tell similar stories and there is a push to ban the dowry in Victorian state law. As the state's Indian population hits 190,000 there are claims the dowry increases a woman's powerlessness and causes tensions between families that can lead to relationships breaking down and, in some cases, contribute to domestic violence. Dr Ravinder Thiara, a British academic from the University of Warwick who specialises in gender, race and violence, told Fairfax Media that the dowry ''has huge links to domestic violence''. Also, there are claims that Indian men with permanent residency in Australia are being ''auctioned off'' by their families to the highest bidder. The family of a potential bride that offers the highest dowry gets the prize of a son-in-law with Australian residency.
Melbourne psychiatrist Dr Manjula O'Connor, who was born in India, is leading the push to get the dowry banned in Victoria. Last month, former Victorian premier and serving Hawthorn MP Ted Baillieu tabled a petition in Parliament calling for 2008's Family Violence Act to be amended to outlaw the dowry. A UK politician has made similar calls in Britain.This is a highly complex issue. The dowry has been banned in India since 1961 but it is a tradition that refuses to bow to the law. Thiara says that despite being illegal it is sometimes voluntarily given by the bride's family, but mostly because the groom's family expects it.Thiara questions whether any dowry ban can be effective, given the evidence from India. ''It is hard to see how a ban on dowry can be implemented so, rather than criminalisation, is prevention through education a better avenue to pursue?''
Even the definition of dowry is complicated. In India, it is a centuries-old tradition where the bride's parents present gifts of cash, clothes and jewellery to the groom's family. Also, women there are not entitled to any inheritance or property rights so, historically, the dowry's purpose was to provide the bride with financial security should anything happen to her husband.However, in recent decades it has morphed into an economic transaction between the two sets of parents and often becomes a ''price'' for the groom.
Dowry-related violence in India has a huge impact on women's lives. India's National Crimes Bureau reported one woman every hour died in India in 2012 because of dowry-related crimes. Previous figures showed that, in 2007, 8093 women were killed and 3148 took their own lives because of dowry disputes. In 2012, Melbourne's Indian community was rocked by a spate of horrific murder-suicides within families. Twelve people, including five children, died in the space of a few months. In the first case, the bodies of a couple and their children, aged 5 and 3, were found in their Glen Waverley home.Weeks later, a woman and three sons died in a Clayton South house fire. Soon after, the bodies of a couple, recently arrived from India, were discovered in their Blackburn home. Another Indian woman died months later when her estranged husband stalked her and set fire to her Kew house. He also died. These shocking events shone a light on family violence and mental health issues within the Indian population. Fairfax Media is not suggesting any of the 2012 deaths were dowry-related.
Most families live harmoniously, but Indian community leaders recognise that family violence is a substantial problem. The question of whether the dowry contributes is highly divisive.
Dheen*, a professional man in his early 30s, came to Melbourne's southern suburbs from India eight years ago. He has an intervention order against him after his arranged marriage became violent. Dheen says no dowry was involved in their marriage. The problem of family violence comes from the male-dominated culture rather than dowry-related conflicts, he says. ''The man is the leader in the house, the authority. The woman has to follow that because he is the breadwinner, the wife and children will depend upon him, so they have to listen to him. The men use their power - that is the main reason for domestic violence in the Indian community.'' Dheen is now getting help from Manjula O'Connor in how to manage his anger. ''I couldn't deal with the problems and ended up solving the problem with violence and ended up getting into trouble.'' Dheen says that, historically, the dowry gave a bride confidence in her financial future. ''Now it has become a social evil - people try to demand more money from the bride's family and it becomes a harassment for the girl's family.''
O'Connor herself has been ostracised by sections of the Indian community for her outspoken approach to family violence and campaign against dowry. Vasan Srinivasan, president of the Federation of Indian Associations of Victoria, does not believe dowry is a major issue. And he says the research funding that O'Connor secured to explore the issue of domestic violence could have been spent on community services. ''We were not impressed. Our services include crisis accommodation and food donations … and legal support. We felt that money could have been better spent,'' Srinivasan says. ''Problems with dowry are very rare. It has already been outlawed in India; I don't think we need to worry about that here,'' Srinivasan says. He also claims that O'Connor inflates figures of ''how many Indian men beat their wives'' and he insists that ''we do respect women in our community''.
But Indian relationship counsellor Muktesh Chibber, who has a Melbourne-based private practice and also works for Relationships Australia, argues that dowry tears many families apart, hurting both men and women. ''Problems with the dowry are very common,'' Chibber says. ''This is a terrible issue - the Australian system, along with government in India, has to do something. It is not one way, I have seen men in terrible situations too. Sometimes the problem is with the in-laws.''
Ted Baillieu is backing the dowry ban after he was contacted by O'Connor during his time as premier. A number of her Indian female patients came into his office and told their stories. ''They were pretty horrific stories,'' Baillieu says. ''Getting people to understand that domestic violence is a crime is the starting point. Even now you'll get people who hesitate about that. Dowry is clearly part of the issue … there are cultural pressures that are historical.''
Jacky Tucker is family violence manager at Women's Health West, which provides services across Melbourne's western suburbs. She knows of at least two Indian women who took their own lives because they felt their family situation was so desperate. The service supports many women who have arrived from India on spousal or student visas. ''Sometimes the woman is fleeing from the in-laws rather than the partner; the abuse is coming direct from them.'' Within Indian culture, once a woman marries, she traditionally ''belongs'' to her husband's family. She is expected to live under their roof and is often directed and controlled by her husband's parents. If they aren't satisfied with the dowry paid by her parents, this can be a trigger for abuse.
Tucker supports a change to Victorian law. ''Dowry is a tension within the community … it's reasonable to say there's certain circumstances … where dowry is misused as a threatening tactic against women.''
Women's Legal Service Victoria policy and projects manager Pasanna Mutha says Indian women are the service's second biggest client group. ''[Dowry] is definitely a really important issue for our clients. It is very hard for them to get their dowry back [if their relationship breaks down]. It may be being held in India by the in-laws.''
O'Connor, who sees many domestic violence victims in her private psychiatry practice, is also a senior fellow at Melbourne University's School of Population and Global Health. Last year she founded the Australasian Centre for Human Rights and Health along with Melbourne lawyer Molina Asthana, who originally practised in India. O'Connor readily acknowledges that many people are unhappy with her approach. But she is determined to continue her crusade. ''Young men need to understand [the dowry] will not be tolerated in Australia, just as it is not tolerated in India by law,'' she says. O'Connor will meet state Attorney-General Robert Clark in June to discuss the next move. Baillieu says the issue may be referred to the Victorian Law Reform Commission. O'Connor also met federal Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews earlier this year to discuss potential changes to spousal visa conditions. ''I hope to make dowry acceptance - asking, taking or giving dowry - a breach of visa conditions. This will bring down domestic violence rates,'' she says.
Jessica is in limbo while she waits for permanent residency to be granted. Meanwhile, her parents have filed a complaint in India against her husband's parents to try to get her dowry back. Although the dowry was theoretically hers, the in-laws insisted on holding it for her. This is a common scenario. She says tensions between herself and her husband's family grew during the two-year marriage as they demanded control of her finances, her movements, what she wore and her contact with her own family. At one point, her husband started checking the car's kilometres to make sure she had not been out without his permission.
As she tells her story, Jessica appears composed, highly articulate and haunted by a sense of disbelief about what happened. Her husband first became violent after she told him she was fed up with his criticism. He punched a hole in the wall. ''I was so worried by this, I did not know what was going on and I didn't tell anyone,'' she says. From then, the violence escalated. On one occasion, after Jessica refused sex, he broke the TV remote control. Following another terrible argument, he hit her in the face. In the days afterwards, he apologised. But when he started pushing and abusing her again during a subsequent argument, Jessica called police and obtained an intervention order. She is now sharing a house in Melbourne's south with another Indian woman and has casual teaching work. ''He has made my life really hell. I just want my mental peace of mind. I am on antidepressants and having counselling,'' Jessica says. ''But I don't want to go back to India because there is such a stigma attached to being divorced and I don't want to be a burden on my family. So that is why I am trying to get my life back together here.''
*Jessica and Dheen are assumed names
Rachel Kleinman is a Melbourne journalist.
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Indian Women's issues such as dowry and abuse will be discussed at the film screening & community forum of "It's a Girl". View the Advertisement of "It's a Girl".