A Senate inquiry into the nature and prevalence of dowry abuse in Australia will examine its “devastating impacts” on women in Hindu and Sikh communities amid growing concerns about a recent significant increase in dowry-related domestic violence, murders and suicides.
The inquiry will for the first time assess the adequacy of Australia’s family law system and migration law system in addressing dowry abuse after an ABC News investigation found the cultural practice had resulted in a spate of horrific deaths in the past decade following a wave of migration from the Indian sub-continent.
It will also consider the potential links of dowry abuse with family violence, forced marriage, modern-day slavery and any adverse mental health outcomes for affected women.
Labor MP Julian Hill last month called for an urgent and focused probe into the “alarming growth” of dowry abuse in migrant communities, which he slammed as “completely inappropriate in modern Australia”.
The cultural practice typically sees a bride’s family pay the groom and his family a dowry of cash, gold, gifts and sometimes real estate upon a couple’s marriage.
However, it is common for grooms and their families to escalate demands for higher dowry payments, advocates say, which has resulted in violence, abandonment and even death when brides do not comply.
Family and domestic violence support services:
- 1800 Respect national helpline: 1800 737 732
- Women’s Crisis Line: 1800 811 811
- Men’s Referral Service: 1300 766 491
- Lifeline (24 hour crisis line): 131 114
- Relationships Australia: 1300 364 277
- Sikh Helpline: 0401 401 040
- InTouch Multicultural Centre Against FV: 1800 755 988 (Vic)
‘Women are not property’
“Dowry perpetuates a culture of ownership of women, which runs against the cause of equality,” Mr Hill told Federal Parliament in May.
“Women are not property; cultural or religious practices that suggest so are not welcome in Australia.”
There are growing concerns about a recent, significant increase in domestic violence in Hindu and Sikh communities, a crisis which has become public in a spate of horrific deaths.
The inquiry comes as the Victorian Government prepares to introduce legislation banning dowry abuse, which has been illegal in India since 1961, but continues to impact migrant brides who come to Australia for arranged marriages.
The Justice Legislation Amendment (Family Violence Protection and Other Matters) Bill 2018 was debated — and passed unanimously — by Victorian Parliament last week.
“The Victorian Government has led the way in Australia with its commitment to implement the 2016 recommendation of the Royal Commission into Family Violence to expand statutory examples of family violence to include forced marriage and dowry-related abuse,” Mr Hill said.
“Legislation is now before the Victorian Parliament and its time we examined the need for a comprehensive national response to dowry and dowry abuse.”
‘We need as many submissions as possible’
Melbourne-based international anti-dowry campaigner Dr Manjula O’Connor said the Senate inquiry would help break the silence around the issue of dowry abuse in Australian migrant communities.
“We need to examine this practice as it occurs in Australia and set up some kind of system of counting how many people are affected and who is suffering,” said Dr O’Connor, who in her clinical practice sees up to four new women from the Indian sub-continent experiencing family violence, and often dowry extortion, every week.
For many Hindu and Sikh women who’ve experienced domestic violence in the last decade, their suffering has ended only with death. These are their stories.
“The abuses that can occur within the [dowry] system are so culturally embedded that many people don’t even recognise them as abuse,” she said.
“The system allows women to be treated as property, as objects … and in the 21st century we cannot allow that to happen.”
Dr O’Connor said that, in the past few years, there had been attempts to undermine the campaign to end dowry abuse by community members who believe the seriousness of the problem is being over-exaggerated by advocates.
“The other reason people try to derail [the campaign] is that [some people in] the specific communities being targeted feel it brings a bad name to the community and that it can evoke racism against them,” she said.
“It is important that the voices of those who speak out are not silenced and that the voices of women and men …. who are affected are heard.”
As part of the inquiry, which is open for public submissions, the committee will consult with members from affected communities, advocates and peak body organisations. A final report is due back to the Senate on Thursday December 6, 2018.
“The practice of requiring dowries can result in abuse and have devastating impacts on women and their families,” said Senator Louise Pratt, chair of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee.
Though existing laws may offer women some protection from dowry abuse, Senator Pratt said, it was still occurring.
“We therefore need to take a fresh look at what needs to be done to stop dowry abuse, so it’s vital that we have as many submissions as possible to explore dowry-related abuse in Australia.”
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