Joint with Louise Pratt, Chair of Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee.
SUBJECTS: Senate Inquiry into Dowry Abuse.
NAVNEET ANAND: Honourable MP Michelle Rowland and Senator Louise Pratt, welcome to the show.
SENATOR LOUISE PRATT, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR UNIVERSITIES AND EQUALITY & CHAIR OF LEGAL AND CONSTITUTIONAL AFFAIRS REFERENCES COMMITTEE: Thank you.
MICHELLE ROWLAND, SHADOW MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: Thank you so much.
ANAND: Domestic violence and dowry. It’s a sad reality of many households. It’s a crime that's unpalatable. It’s a blot on humanity, violations of basic human rights. Domestic violence, sadly, is plaguing the society and the women are suffering. The needs of the hour are stricter laws and zero tolerance in this regard. I hope you agree.
Senator, you have taken the bold initiative to have a Senate inquiry into the dowry. When did you learn about it; the issues surrounding the dowry and what was your reactions to it?
PRATT: Well the Victorian Government held a Royal Commission into family and domestic violence in Victoria and what they found was that, within some communities, dowry abuse was contributing to the epidemic of family violence. What that Royal Commission also made clear is that not only State issues, but there are also national issues at play in relation to dowry abuse, which means things like our family law system, our migration system and other aspects of the Commonwealth jurisdiction very much impact on the interplay of family violence within dowry abuse. So from that point of view, it was really important to have a Senate inquiry that can look at the national issues as well as the state issues and see how that interacts with dowry abuse here in Australia.
ANAND: So then that’s finally when you called the Senate in for the Senate inquiry.
PRATT: That’s right. I’ve really got to thank Julian Hill MP who worked very closely with constituents in Victoria, particularly Sub-Continent communities who’ve been affected by dowry abuse. And he’s worked very closely with them to draw attention to these important issues.
ANAND: Thank you so much both of you lovely ladies to bring this up. MP, you are the Member for Greenway and you have a large number of people from the Sub-Continent heritage. How serious is the issue with the Sub-Continent community and also what are the forms of domestic violence that exist within the community?
ROWLAND: Sure, it’s one that seems to be gaining more prevalence and I think that’s partly because people have become more ready to try and report these instances or look for help. I do think we are scratching the surface though. We had a roundtable this morning with a number of local support organisations; not strictly religious-based; but also people who assist with legal outreach services and also family support services. And the one message is very clear: although dowry has been actually made illegal in India, for example, it continues to go on in Australia in some form and it is quite disturbing to see the different situations in which this is manifesting itself, and it is resulting in violence that isn’t only physical; it’s emotional and psychological violence which can, ultimately, lead to people taking their own lives or even the lives of others; it’s financial violence; we also have violence in terms of abandonment.
Some of the stories we heard this morning, the anecdotal evidence, is very disturbing when you consider the number of people who have either been abandoned in Australia or overseas. I think the notion that this is all about women being victims, I think women are the vast majority of victims, but also as was made clear, it’s not strictly a gender issue. It’s a financial crime, and someone ultimately is making money out of this and utilising either threats or other forms of intimidation in order to get a result.
The message that we took today also that was very clear was: the vast majority of people from sub-continent backgrounds – and also it’s beyond Sub-Continent, we heard today there were people who were affected, various African nationalities are impacted as well and also Middle Eastern – to that extent, we need to recognise that a crime is a crime. The victims may be from different backgrounds, different genders, but it’s the crime that we need to address.
ANAND: I think that other than being a crime it is an absolute disease that needs to be eradicated from the society, 100 per cent. Senator, is dowry an exclusively a Sub-Continent problem? I think you’ve answered some of that. If other communities are involved, how do they deal with the issue?
PRATT: Well we need to get all communities to come forward that are experiencing this. We know, for example, that it does happen in parts of Africa but we also know that there’s a bride price in some parts of the Pacific also. So, it’s very important; we know that this kind of economic abuse coming into marriages and relationships can happen in many different guises. Here we’re talking about dowry abuse, but look, let’s not forget that there are people who form relationships on the internet, think they’re getting married and hand over money. So I don’t think we need to stigmatise any particular kind of community with these issues but what we do need to do is look at cultural specifics that take place – be they Sub-Continent communities, be they African communities, be they Pacific communities – to look at how we can best shape community and legal responses to those circumstances.
ANAND: Going back to the Member from Greenway. Some communities totally deny that it happens within their community. How do you deal with such situation knowing that they’re not telling the truth?
ROWLAND: It’s a conundrum, but it’s quite clear from the evidence we’ve heard here today that it does exist. I think part of the issue might be that some people either don’t understand that certain behaviours are not acceptable, but also some people mightn’t realise that they have rights, and in many cases this is – and I’m not being exclusive here but it’s in the case of – younger women who come to Australia not understanding that people are not property; you cannot sell them. And although some people might think well that’s just a case of putting a price tag on them, it takes a number of different forms and sometimes it’s quite insidious: I’m going to take away your passport and require you to remain in Australia without any financial support; I’m going to abandon you in India because I’ve got the price that I wanted now. Those kinds of guises might look like they’re bad behaviours in themselves.
So I think the concept of dowry abuse – even when we started off the discussion today, I think our first question was, “Well what is it? What is the definition?”. And I happened to just look up on the internet just to see what the definition was, and it was a one-liner saying ‘a price paid to obtain a wife’. But clearly that is not the sum-total of the problem.
PRATT: It is much more diverse than that. I think one of the reasons people, it doesn’t have the visibility it should, is because of the shame and stigma attached to it and attached to when marriages go bad. So what’s particularly important is to have visibility of this issue, to see community leaders raising it like they did today and to make sure that women or men who are suffering this kind of abuse, that people in their community are looking out for them. Because we know that one of the tactics here is to isolate people, to isolate them from their networks, to make sure they’ve got no one else to turn to. So it’s really important that people in the community do keep their eyes open and that people reach out for help.
ANAND: I think that so much has been done, back in India as well, that dowry seems to be diminishing, almost from all the places, especially in the cities, the villages.
ROWLAND: Well that was part of the message that we had here today and the frustration was ‘well this is illegal in my home country, why is it going on here?’. We also had a very interesting discussion about how other countries might be dealing with the issue, for example Canada, which has a large Sub-Continent population and how they are addressing some of the need for law reform in this area. So delving into those international comparisons is really important because we are looking for legislative change here. We've identified a problem, the inquiry is still going so we're coming up with and discovering other facets of the problem but at the end of it, Louise and I think all the Senators on this inquiry want to have some concrete recommendations for change.
Clearly there is a problem in Australia that needs to be addressed. It needs to be addressed across agencies, across a variety of government levels even. Like even when you think about the state government level, how police are dealing with it; how funding, even, is provided to these support services. You know, Navneet, the people we had around this table here today, they're by and large volunteers. They would've taken time out of their own families or their own jobs today to come and assist us with this inquiry. We're very grateful for that but I think it also highlights that a lot of this work is being done on the down low on the smell of an oily rag and clearly there is a big problem and it's going to take not only legislative change, but also a change in the mindset about how we address these multi-agency, multifaceted issues.
ANAND: Senator, is this the issue with any particular social-economic group, or with new migrants, or irrespective of when they arrived in the country?
PRATT: Look, we can certainly see issues coming up with new migrants. For example, we can see the form of abuse where someone is essentially trading through dowry an immigration outcome to their prospective spouse. So that's one example that we really need to work out how we crack down on that within immigration law. I think what's also significant is that newly arrived migrants are more likely to be vulnerable to these things from what I've seen because of their isolation and social exclusion, where they're yet to form the community networks that would support them, where people know their rights and responsibilities here in Australia. But certainly I do not think it only applies to new migrants here in Australia.
ANAND: Thank you so much, and once again thank you so much for bringing up the top to the Senate, calling for an inquiry and the effort being done. So what is the message that you would like to give to the communities all around so that this is 100 per cent eradicated right from the ground?
ROWLAND: Sure, well the first step is to make sure that we are listening to people and even today we heard from people at our roundtable who said 'I'm very involved in understanding issues affecting my community but I didn't know this inquiry was on'. And we wouldn't expect people, even Parliamentarians quite frankly, Navneet, don't know every inquiry that is going on at any point in time. So we actually rely on local communities, we rely on organisations such as yours to get that message out that we need to hear from people. There is no point in the Australian Parliament looking to make legislative change if it is not reflective of the problem and we don't have solutions that are capable of being implemented. So our plea is for people to please come forward. You can go to the Parliament House website, you can even email me, I'm sure they can even email you because you've got the details of the Parliamentary Inquiry.
PRATT: Or me.
ROWLAND: Or Louise. So we are really looking for people to give input so we have the best possible inquiry.
PRATT: My plea is the same. I want people to participate in the inquiry but my plea is also is if you are suffering from this kind of family violence or domestic abuse of any form or linked to dowry abuse, please reach out for help. Do not suffer in isolation. There are laws and support services in Australia to protect you.
ANAND: From this platform, I invite each and everybody who is the victim of domestic violence or dowry, please be in touch with these people but I'm always there to help you out to get your inquires reaching to the right people. Thank you so much.
PRATT: Thank you.
ROWLAND: Thank you.