In 2014, the South Asian community in Victoria was rocked by the violent murder of Deepshikha Godara by her husband.
After strangling and stabbing his estranged wife, Deepshikha’s husband killed himself by driving into an oncoming truck the following day.
The couple had a son, three years old at the time, who was at home when his mother was killed.
Over the course of their marriage, Deepshikha’s husband physically and emotionally abused her. She had a taken out a two-year intervention order against him, had re-partnered, and was co-parenting with him. Just days after the intervention order expired, he killed her.
At the coronial inquest into Deepshikha’s death, Coroner Sara Hinchey noted that “the initial discord within the marriage was the result of [his] family’s demands for additional dowry”. Dowry coercion was recognised as a factor in the portrait of family violence that emerged from the inquest.
Dowry in Australia
Deepshikha’s story is not unique.
Dowry as a practice in South Asia has a long and complex history.
The custom of giving a dowry to a daughter on the occasion of her marriage continues to be practiced particularly amongst, but not limited to, Hindus. At some point, likely during the colonial era, dowries changed from a daughter’s inheritance to a gift made over to the groom.
In recent times, the amount of dowry expected by grooms has increased and can be exorbitantly excessive if not beyond the means of the bride’s family. If further dowry demands are not met after marriage, women may be subject to family violence.
India has been the largest source country of migrants to Australia in over the last few years and this particular subset of family violence is now also manifesting in this country.
The amount of dowry that some Indian-origin men in Australia are given or demand is around $50,000, although there have been reports of dowries valued at $100,000 or more.
Demands may not cease at the time of the wedding, with continued coercion potentially escalating into violence.
One woman whose family paid a significant six-figure dowry was abused physically and emotionally when she arrived in Australia for providing an allegedly insufficient dowry amount.
Vulnerable immigration status: a key driver of abuse
Image by Sachin Goel
Newly-arrived brides report feeling isolated in Australia, which is undoubtedly a factor that allows abuse to flourish. Simply encouraging women to leave the relationship is not always tenable given the support vacuum for newly-arrived women.
Another significant factor is that women are brought to Australia on a partner visa, supported by a husband who may be using his sponsorship of the woman’s visa as leverage to extract more money from her and her family. The majority of those on partner visas in Australia come from the United Kingdom, followed by China and India, and these women are very vulnerable to abuse on these visas.
The stigma around divorce and returning to India separated has been reported as a factor in keeping women in relationships involving dowry abuse.
In response to a Senate Inquiry into dowry abuse, the Australian government has recognised that dowry abuse constitutes family violence, and that victims should not be forced to stay with abusive partners due to visa concerns. Victims of family violence can apply independently for a visa once their relationship with the perpetrator has ended.
Dowry and the law: Victoria
In 2016, the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence (RCFV) recommended that the definition of family violence in the Family Violence Protection Act (FVPA) be expanded to include examples of dowry coercion and forced marriage.
The Royal Commission recognised that dowry abuse was closely linked to the vulnerable immigration status of new brides, where the threat of deportation was used by partners to coerce further monetary payments upon the bride’s arrival in Australia.
Sadly, there was opposition from within the South Asian community to the effect that this change would stigmatise the community and that dowry abuse was not a significant issue in Australia. However the recommendation did not require the drafting of any new dowry-specific legislation.
A recurring complaint from immigrant women themselves, as shown in the Royal Commission’s findings, is a lack of awareness amongst law enforcement of the seriousness of a dowry-related complaint. Including an illustration in the statutory examples in the FVPA serves an educative purpose without necessarily expanding the operation of the existing law or creating new laws for specific cultural practices.
In 2019, that recommendation was brought into effect.
What this means is that using coercion, threats, physical abuse or emotional or psychological abuse to demand or receive dowry, either before or after a marriage is now included as an example of family violence.
In Victoria, family violence includes physical, sexual, emotional, psychological and economic abuse, and behaviour that is threatening or coercive. The dowry amendment doesn’t change this definition. It simply includes dowry coercion as an example falling within the existing definition. A person alleging dowry coercion may apply for an intervention order against the perpetrator. Breach of an intervention order is an offence.
The amendment does not make the practice of dowry giving and receiving illegal, as has been the case in India (in theory at least) since the 1960s. Specific criminalisation of dowry as a practice, and dowry coercion, has been rejected in Australia.
Criminalisation of family violence poses difficult issues for the criminal law, and it may be in future that the focus of criminalisation is on coercive control more broadly. Until then, victims of family violence must rely on the intervention order regime.
Where to get help
If you are experiencing family violence, contact:
National: 13 11 14, Lifeline, for crisis support services in any state
Queensland: 1800 811 811, DV Connect, free state wide telephone service that provides confidential counselling and referral, www.dvconnect.org/womensline
Victoria: 1800 015 188, Safe Steps Family Violence Response Centre. 24 hours/7 days a week, www.safesteps.org.au
Victoria: 1800 806 292, Sexual Assault Crisis Line, for past or current sexual abuse, 24 hours, 7 days a week, www.sacl.com.au
New South Wales: 1800 656 463, NSW Domestic Violence Line, 24 hours, 7 days a week, www.community.nsw.gov.au
New South Wales: 1800 424 017, NSW Rape Crisis, 24 hours, 7 days a week, www.rape-dvservices.org.au
Uthra Ramachandran is a barrister, based in Melbourne. She is also a classically-trained bharatanatyam dancer.