Should ‘Dowry Abuse’ be Criminalised?

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Dowry Abuse

A Senate Inquiry into ‘dowry abuse’ has heard that a disturbing number of women in Australia are being subjected to mental and physical abuse by their fiances or husbands with a view to having them elicit gifts from their families to support marriages.

What is dowry abuse?

A dowry is a long-held tradition amongst Hindu and Sikh communities in India, and in a number of South East Asian countries.

It is where a bride’s family pays a groom and his family a dowry of cash, gifts and sometimes real property at the time of a marriage. The reasoning is an outdated one – that the man should receive something for taking over the responsibility of providing for the woman for the rest of her life, and removing the burden from families.

But in some cases, grooms and their families can then go on to demand additional ‘gifts’ either before or into the marriage, and this can result in violence or abandonment when brides’ families don’t comply.

While the practice has been illegal in India since the early 1960s, the dowry arrangements are not illegal in Australia. Indeed, it is common in our country for a woman’s family to be responsible for the cost of a wedding.

Experts say that dowry abuse often occurs in Indian and South East Asian communities, and that many women are subjected to threats, domestic violence, and even killed by their dissatisfied or demanding partners. The pressure can even lead to suicide.

The inquiry heard that Indian and South East Asian women who have migrated to Australia as part of arranged marriages, under temporary migration status, have been threatened with withdrawal of sponsorship, which can lead to deportation and great shame.

Concerns with current laws

Despite its prevalence, there are concerns the problem remains unrecognised by current domestic violence laws.

This is led to calls for amendments which explicitly refer to dowry abuse as a form of domestic and family violence.

A recent ABC investigation into female deaths in Hindu and Sikh communities found that 11 cases of dowry abuse-related family violence led to deaths. Of a total 19 deaths from family violence, twelve were women and two were children. Five were men.

Investigations also suggested that in four of the cases, men killed their partners and then themselves. In one case, a woman killed her husband before taking her own life.

Many Australian domestic and family violence workers, as well as politicians, have been campaigning for recognition and prohibition of the practice of dowry giving.

Victoria’s family violence laws include dowry abuse

Earlier this year, Victoria passed the Family Violence Protection and Other Matters Bill 2018 which redefined the meaning of family violence to include “using coercion, threats, physical abuse or emotional or psychological abuse to demand or receive a dowry, either before or after a marriage.”

Women falsely accusing men

Since the issue had come under the spotlight in Australia, many have argued the ‘other side of the situation’ saying that anti-dowry laws in India, particularly the section of the law which relates to dowry-related cruelty towards a wife are misused by women who make false complaints to extort their husbands, behaviour which can lead to the social ostracism and suicide of men.

They say the problem is also prevalent here.

The senate inquiry

The Senate inquiry will focus on understanding the nature of dowry as a cultural practice, and the adequacy of current Australian policy settings and legal frameworks regarding dowry and dowry abuse. A final report to the Senate is due on 6 December 2018.It is important to ensure that all Australians are protected by the law.

And financial coercion, emotional abuse and even physical violence in partnerships and marriages certainly doesn’t just occur in migrant or minority communities.

Statistics suggest that Australian police deal with an incidence of domestic violence every two minutes, and many believe that reforms which tighten up legal definitions and provide frameworks to ensure genuine victims are protected represent an important step forward.

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Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist, and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team. Sonia is the winner of the Mondaq Thought Leadership Awards, Spring 2022.

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