Impact of domestic violence on women’s health
January 30, 2018

The trouble started when Kasish’s new husband wanted her to take the blame for his driving offence, to save his demerit points. When she refused, he hit her for the first time.

“He hit me, he scold me, he pull my hair,” she said.

“He said: ‘Why are you not giving to me? I am your husband, you have to give to me. All [the] people are doing it’.”

When the driving offence took place, Kasish wasn’t even in Australia. She was a newlywed in India’s capital, Delhi, planning to move to Melbourne to be with her husband.

They met on a matrimonial website, where potential husbands and wives can be searched for with filters including annual income, caste, and whether or not they have been married before. No-one wants a partner who is divorced, Kasish says.

“A divorce is not acceptable in India, not acceptable in my family. And I never [thought it would] happen to me in my life,” she said.

It’s not just husbands

In India marriage and money go hand in hand because of the payment of dowry — an ancient and illegal financial custom.

When she got married, Kasish’s family paid her new husband and his family a $50,000 dowry, in cash, jewellery, gold and white goods — including a washing machine, TV and air conditioner — for her new in-laws.

That’s a standard dowry commanded by Australian-Indian men, according to a domestic violence caseworker who says she has seen hundreds of cases of dowry-related abuse in South Australia.

Avni doesn’t want to use her real name, to protect her clients’ identities. She works with migrant women in Adelaide, where legal and social workers say dowry-related abuse is increasing.

Family and domestic violence support services:

Typically, a woman’s family pays between $25,000 and $50,000, including bearing the cost of a lavish ceremony, she says.

But demands often keep coming after the wedding, and if the bride’s family refuses them, the husband might use physical violence to extort more money, or exact revenge.

“More than half of [my] clients have this problem. Most of the time… the husband keeps asking for dowry, and it finally ends up in physical violence,” Avni said.

It’s not just the husband, sometimes it’s his entire family, says Brisbane-based social worker and director of JK Diversity Consultants Jatinder Kaur.

She has seen cases where a mother-in-law is abusive, or instructs her son to be violent to his new wife.

“Typically the in-laws, usually the mother-in-law, is not satisfied with what she got, after the wedding,” Ms Kaur said.

“They will try to extort or emotionally blackmail the bride’s family. [The mother-in-law will say] ‘we will make your daughter’s life hell if you don’t give us what we want’.

“Unfortunately I think it’s a growing trend, and not just with the newly-arrived.”

An illustration of appliances including a fridge, washing machine and vacuum cleaner.

Exploiting dreams of a better life

Dowries are deeply embedded in Indian culture. Traditionally they were given to daughters instead of an inheritance, which goes to sons.

The potential for abuse and exploitation led to dowries being outlawed in India in 1961, but legislation has done little to stop the practice.

Families speak in coded terms, referring to “gifts” and avoiding documentation. Many start saving the moment a daughter is born, some selling properties and borrowing against future crops.

Not every dowry transaction ends in abuse, but the specific circumstances in Australia make domestic violence more likely.

An illustration shows the legs of three male and female couples.

Indian men with Australian citizenship command higher dowries, because of the promise of a new life in a wealthy country. Some are taking advantage of that.

Men who have arrived as international students years ago may see marriage as a way to pay off their student debts and loans, according to psychiatrist and campaigner Dr Manjula O’Connor.

“Many have girlfriends but they go back [to India] for an arranged marriage,” she said.

“Partly because their parents insist they continue their culture by getting married to someone from their culture, but partly also with the idea that this will remove their debts.”

The consequences of dowry-related abuse can be fatal.

In 2014 Deepshikha Godara was stabbed to death by her husband, Sunil Beniwal, who then killed himself.

Deepshikha Godara, who was murdered by her husband in 2014.

Her murder came after years of violence, with the Victorian Coroner finding Beniwal had slapped her on the face, kicked her in the stomach, thrown empty glass bottles at her, and burnt her arm with hot tongs.

It all started with the exchange of a dowry, with the coroner finding “the initial discord within the marriage was the result of Mr Beniwal’s family’s demands for additional dowry”.

“The Australian experience is mirroring the experience back in India, where every year about 8,000 to 8,500 murders are being recorded,” Dr O’Connor warned.

‘Once a girl is married, there is no going back’

Despite the horror stories, and what she endured at the hands of her own former partner, Kasish would still prefer to be married.

When her family refused her husband’s escalating dowry demands, her husband told Kasish he could not afford to take her out, and locked her inside the house.

“He said ‘your parents are not giving me anything, so I can’t take you all the time outside, I need money’,” she said.

One night, she confronted him after finding messages and photos from other women on his phone.

“He hit me, he was telling me ‘if you say to anyone, I will kill you, I will throw you out of this country, because I have given you partner visa’. So he was blackmailing me,” she said.

Kasish tried to harm herself, and ended up in hospital. She is now estranged from her husband, but can’t return to India, because her family won’t take her back.

“My father was not accepting me. [He said] ‘we don’t have any space in our house now’ because in our culture once a girl is married there is no going back,” she said.

Women like Kasish, who have experienced domestic violence, can apply for permanent residency in Australia, if they have proof of what happened.

But because there are no laws around dowries in Australia, getting cash, gold, and jewellery returned is virtually impossible.

An illustration shows several hands holding jewellery and gold items.

Legal and social workers push for change

Dr O’Connor is leading a push to change Australian legislation, after she began documenting cases in 2012.

“I started to keep the figures and once I noticed that it was more than 200 then we felt like we need to do something,” she said.

“We started a petition in Melbourne to create some sort of a law against dowry abuse in Victoria and Australia.”

Dr O’Connor estimates she’s seen 50 new cases of dowry-related abuse at her Victorian practice every year, and says she regularly fields phone calls from people in other states, looking for help.

Her petition attracted 670 signatures, mostly from within in the Indian-Australian community, before it was tabled in the Victorian Parliament, she said.

Media player: “Space” to play, “M” to mute, “left” and “right” to seek.

At this stage there is no legislation, though dowry-related abuse was discussed in the Victorian family violence royal commission. The commission recommended the Family Violence Protection Act be expanded, to include forced marriage and dowry-related abuse.

There’s a drive to make that change national, with the South Australian Legal Services Commission among those outlining their concerns to a federal parliamentary inquiry.

The commission’s director Gabrielle Canny says more education and awareness among service providers could also have a big impact.

“Often the women involved in these situations have very little English language, they often have very little permission to mix in society,” she said.

“So any service provider they intersect with needs to be alert to the issues of dowry-related abuse.”

Ms Kaur also thinks education is crucial, particularly within migrant communities and their religious leaders.

Encouraging women to leave their husband is not always the best way to deal with dowry-related abuse, she said.

“Just leaving is not always an option,” she said.

“They really struggle to find where they fit in.

“If they are no longer a wife or a mother or part of that community, then what is their sense of identity, where will they go?”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *