Dowry abuse

Whilst some types of family violence are experienced in all communities, there are certain forms of family violence that arise in culturally and linguistically diverse communities. One notable example is dowry abuse, which is particularly prevalent in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Middle East, though not confined to any ethnic, cultural or religious group. Given Australia’s status as a multicultural nation, dowry abuse has become an increasing problem.

Dowry is the practice of transferring money, property, goods or other gifts from a person to their spouse’s family. The United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women defines dowry-related violence as ‘any act of violence or harassment associated with the giving or receiving of dowry at any time before, during or after the marriage’. The practice of dowry is abused when coercive demands are made for further or larger gifts from a victim and their family. These demands are often coupled with acts of physical, emotional or economic abuse, threats, harassment or stalking. Research suggests that dowry abuse can also include abandonment, acid throwing, demands to terminate pregnancy, mutilation, murder, sexual assault, and threats to cancel visa sponsorship or to annul a marriage. Numerous individuals may be involved in perpetrating dowry abuse, such as in-laws, former spouses and fiancés, and other family members and friends.

Dowry abuse has been reported to be linked to poor mental health and suicides in women. The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists have observed that culturally and linguistically diverse women found it difficult to recognise the abuse and seek help due to, for example, fears of cultural and social isolation, and pressures from within the community to maintain the family unit. It is also widely noted that dowry-related violence may be exacerbated by a victim’s immigration status. The Family Violence Response Centre reports that their staff observed that women were less likely to report abuse because of their precarious living situation; work restrictions and ineligibility for government support payments; the isolation of living in a new country; and the fear of deportation to their home country and associated feelings of shame. Women who did seek help, however, have encountered barriers because there is limited understanding and awareness among police, social workers and the legal profession about what dowry is, how it is practiced, and how it can be linked to family violence.

There are currently no laws in Australia that criminalise the practice of dowry or dowry abuse. There have been increasing calls for dowry-related violence to be included in the definition of economic abuse in all Australian legislation. Victoria recently legislated to refer to dowry abuse as an example of family violence in s 5(1)(a) of the Family Violence Protection Act 2008. Dowry abuse is also mentioned in the Western Australian Restraining Orders Act 1997 under the definition of family violence in s 5A(2)(h).

Dowry abuse may be one aspect of a complex pattern of behaviours engaged in by perpetrators in order to control another person, sometimes referred to as coercive control.