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Is a dowry a catalyst for domestic violence?

The Royal Commission into Family Violence has recommended to the Victorian government that a dowry should be considered an example of family violence. Under the new proposed anti-dowry legislation in Victoria, scheduled to come into effect within 12 months, a dowry is being defined as "gifts, given or taken in the context of a marriage that is valued at multiple times the annual income of the families". The new law will make giving or taking a dowry illegal; even if the marriage takes place overseas.

What is a "dowry"?
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A dowry refers to a cash payment or a gift given at the time of marriage, either voluntarily or as a condition of the formal union of a couple. It can be a large sum of money, or a collection of expensive gifts such as jewelry, cars, white goods, furniture, bedding, crockery, utensils and other household items.

The payment of dowries is an ancient practice. When provided by the bride's family, they are meant to provide some financial security in widowhood or when a husband is negligent. Dowries can also help to establish a marital household. 

In some communities, the dowry system is believed to be a leading cause of violence against women, ranging from emotional abuse to physical harm and sometimes death. Sometimes dowry payments can also become a great financial burden on families. While considered dishonourable, the tradition has endured for centuries, and some families continue to practice it voluntarily.  

Dowry practices in India have been illegal since 1961
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Dowry practices in India still proceed, despite the fact they have been outlawed since 1961. Traditionally in India, the family of the bride pays the dowry to the family of the groom.

The payment of dowries is said to have originated in ancient times when women were excluded from receiving a part of the family inheritance. Since only sons could inherit the family's property, a dowry was given to the daughter at the time of marriage, as her share of the inheritance. In the case that the daughter was mistreated by her in-laws, it was also viewed as a form of insurance and to assist her with financial independence. Back then, a dowry was another name for a wedding gift that parents gave voluntarily and with love.

But as time progressed dowry payments began to be "demanded" by the groom's family. This resulted in pressure being placed on the bride's family to continue to provide gifts to the groom's family; both before and after marriage. Demands began being made for large sums of money, vehicles, farm animals, furniture, electronics and more.

Dowry abuse still continues in India. Its severest manifestation occurs in “bride burning”; the burning of women who failed to bring a sufficient dowry to satisfy their husbands or in-laws. Most of these incidents are reported as accidental burns in the kitchen or are disguised as suicide. 

A total of 7936 cases of dowry-related deaths were reported in India in 2013.

Social awareness of such offences is growing and organisations and individuals are beginning to take action against the practice.

The anti-dowry law first established in 1961 is one of the severest in India, but due to its rampant misuse, it often works to the detriment of the cause.

Dowries are also prevalent in other countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Iran and more.

 

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'Dowries cause 75% of domestic violence referrals in the Indian-Australian community'
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A Melbourne psychiatrist, Dr. Manjula O’Connor, says 75 percent of domestic violence referrals from the Indian communities are dowry-related.

She says there's little doubt that the ongoing demands for dowries within the Indian community are linked to domestic abuse and violence.

Dr. O'Connor filed a petition to Victoria’s Parliament requesting the practice to be formally recognised as “economic abuse”. She also made a submission to the Royal Commission into Family Violence to bring in anti-dowry legislation in Victoria.

Dr. O'Connor says, one of her clients was emotionally abused within days of her 2009 wedding. The woman, now in her thirties, said her family paid her husband-to-be tens of thousands of Australian dollars as a dowry, but he continually demanded more gifts and cash.

Another patient, “Kumla” said she contemplated suicide after suffering violence at the hands of her husband because he and his family considered the dowry offer to be insufficient.

According to her research, Dr. O’Connor says the practice of paying dowries is happening in Australia and in other developed countries and the cost can be significantly high.

“The dowry value of an Indian groom who is a resident of a first world country such as the USA, Canada, Australia, the UK, or Europe goes up and can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars,” she says.

Dowries are also the leading cause of gender inequality among Asian communities; especially the Indian community.

Dr. O'Connor says, “The gender inequality caused by dowry is making us all into unwitting participants in perpetuating domestic violence, not out of choice, but because we are silenced, suppressed, scared and subservient. We see no evil and do not want to speak of this evil but silence must be broken.”

No need for anti dowry legislation in Victoria - Existing legislation is adequate
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By Muktesh Chibber - Individual, Couple /Family Therapist / Mediator

I have been working with families for the last 25 years in Victoria and have been intensively involved with the Australian Indian community in Victoria. The issues encountered range from those specific to individuals, to those involving the extended families. Interference from family members living overseas, has been detrimental in some cases, and supportive in others.

One of the issues that has more recently surfaced in cases of family violence is the dowry claim. It is a common practice for Australians of Indian origin to seek a partner from India. Many of these marriages are arranged by the close family members. Families in India are attracted to proposals from overseas presuming their child will have better opportunities, especially in western countries. Thus, at times, a considerable amount of money is spent on celebrating these marriages. During the several rituals and ceremonies performed as part of the wedding, exchange of gifts from both sides is considered auspicious.

Historically parents of a bride followed the custom of gifting "stridhan", i.e. property of the woman which represents her share of her parent's wealth. Stridhan literally translates to “woman’s money”, and is, generally speaking, something that a woman can claim as her own property within a marital household. It may include her jewelry (gifted by either side of her family) and gifts presented to her during or after the wedding. Overtime Stridhan evolved into the ancient old custom called ‘dowry.’

The spirit or intent of ‘dowry’ was to assist the young couple to start their marital life. However the term ‘dowry’ in India becomes a social evil and a crime if one party makes demands, directly or indirectly, from the parents or other relatives or guardian of a bride or bridegroom. In 1961, the Government of India criminalised dowry by introducing the Dowry Prohibition Act. Despite the introduction of the Act this evil has not been mitigated in India, in fact subsequent changes have further complicated the situation.

At the time of marriage, parties that demand dowry have committed a crime according to the Indian Dowry Act 1961 and parties that fulfil the demand of dowry are also at fault. If one spouse continues to make demands on the other for gifts or money after the marriage, it is regarded as a crime according to the Act.

Breakdown of relationships are indeed painful and traumatic. In such situations, it is not unusual for the wife and husband to seek return of expensive gifts that were exchanged at the time of their marriage. However when there is a total breakdown of relationship and when there is no space or possibility of any mitigation, it is not unusual that it results in bitterness and vindictiveness. One of the issues that surfaces is that of dowry which during the relationship has been considered an exchange of gifts by mutual consent. In marriages where one spouse is from India, it is not unusual for issues arising along with the rituals or customs of the country of origin to be brought across into the relationship when one migrates.

Whilst the Dowry Prohibition Act in India is absolutely imperative to safeguard and to protect the harassed and helpless women and punish the perpetrators, there is documented evidence that it has not mitigated or constrained the evil of giving and taking of dowry. Every case comes with an emotional, psychological and economic scar. Unfortunately the dowry and cruelty law in India (Indian Penal Code Section- 498a – Dowry and Cruelty laws) is being misused even before a trial in a court of law. This has led to emotional, psychological and financial strain on the innocent people undergoing stigmatization and hardship with some of the falsely accused committing suicide after being jailed.

The Supreme Court of India has asked the Indian government to plug the loopholes in IPC498a which are yet to be fully resolved. The court has famously said in a ruling, “But by misuse of the provision (IPC 498a - Dowry and Cruelty Law) a new legal terrorism can be unleashed. The provision is intended to be used a shield and not an assassin’s weapon”.

In Australia, the Family Violence Act covers economic abuse as behavior by a person that is coercive, deceptive or unreasonably controls another person, without their consent. When the Family Violence Act already covers economic abuse, is there a need to re-define the law? Is there a need to create community-specific legislation in Victoria and set a precedent for other communities to demand legislation specific to their particular ethnic backgrounds?

Considering that the Family Violence Act safeguards the victims, duplicating the legislation in Victoria will only serve to add more legal clauses and create more confusion, for issues that have already been legislated against in other countries where migrants come from. Rather than spend the scant resources available to the Victorian government on duplicating existing laws, an investment in educating the community regarding respectful relationships will be a much better and fruitful investment. Whether an anti-dowry legislation will decrease instances of family violence in Victoria is anybody's guess, but a better and surer way to achieve that outcome would be to inform the community of existing laws, the safeguards and the options available, so that we help the current and future generations. In my opinion, a dowry-specific law isn't needed in Victoria, since existing laws already provide safeguards. A dowry specific law will set a wrong precedent, opening the door for other communities to advocate for laws against other country-specific practices. It will merely duplicate the existing laws and make the task of enforcement even more onerous.

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Young South Sudanese men in Australia under dowry pressure
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Dinka and Nuer, two of the largest ethnic groups in South Sudan pay the highest dowries in their community.

In South Sudan, a dowry or "bride price" is paid by the man’s family to the woman’s and must be finalised before a wedding ceremony can begin.

It’s another practice that continues here in Australia. Dowries traditionally paid in cattle are now paid in cash and an average dowry can be as much as $80,000 AUD. Young men are under increasing pressure to spend all their savings to secure the girl of their dreams; some resorting to taking out loans.

Bride Ajah Ajith Deng Wuoi told SBS's The Feed she grew up expecting a dowry. "When my family ask for... the dowry, it’s like an exchange of something because of how they raised me up, how I went to school and all this, a lot of things that they spent on me... [it's] to pay them back.”

For the groom, Chol Goch, wooing his wife involved a lot of hard work. “In our culture, if you don't have cows, then you wouldn't be able to get married. Basically, you have to pay 100 cows. It took me to work three years basically, to be able to afford the 100 cows. I've tried everything I could because I really want to marry my wife,” said Goch.

Buol Juuk, a family dispute resolution practitioner for Relationships Australia SA, says that if a dowry hasn’t been paid, “Some people will be discontented to hear [you say] 'that’s my wife or my children', because technically they are not members of your family because you haven’t met your obligation.”

Some families are more flexible than others. Tito Tut Pal and his partner Nyabana Riek - both Nuer - have two small children, and live together on the outskirts of Melbourne, even though they’re not officially married. Tito hasn’t yet paid the bride's price but is hoping to finalise it soon. “My family in law are very understanding,” he says, but admits he does feel under pressure, both in financial and social terms.

“It means a real struggle to try to get that done," Tito Tut Pal says. "I’ve got a mortgage, kids... [and I'm] looking after families back home. If you haven’t done it, you get asked, 'When are you going to do it? Why are you not doing it?'”

Law graduate and Nuer woman Nyadol Nyuon is not in favour of dowry payments.

“They say the dowry system stands for respecting the fact that the family has raised this woman," she says, "But then the question is ‘Why don’t you pay the same for the boys?’ because boys have been equally raised by their families?” 

Nyuon still sees how significant it is for her mother and the older generation, but says for her future children, she would prefer the money be put in a bank account so they can, “...put a deposit for a house or something”.

Nyabana Riek believes the dowry should just be a symbolic amount that pays homage to the tradition but doesn’t put pressure on young couples.