Feeling safe with your partner | part two

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How the issue of domestic violence affects the Indian community (continued from PART ONE)

In the past decade, the demand for spousal visa applications to Australia has nearly doubled. As the Indian community in Melbourne is growing, so are these cases. There are numerous instances where NRIs have been accused, and been guilty, of coming to India and acquiring a ‘holiday bride’ to be later mistreated, abused or abandoned. By the same token, there are an increasing number of cases where the attempt to find a ‘suitable Indian spouse’ has led to heartache, marital disputes and stress.

Are domestic abuse cases within our community increasing, or are they merely being reported more?

Both could be true, says psychiatrist Manjula O’Connor, who has a special interest in domestic and family violence and gender-based issues in psychiatric illness.

“I think the reason for the increase is multiple – rising numbers of Indian migrants, women feeling more and more empowered, as well as increased reporting.”

In the case of intercontinental alliances, there could be differences in world view despite the commonality in heritage. These should be kept close in mind when such alliances are made, says Dr O’Connor.

“I think the way Indian girls are brought up in Australia is quite different to the way Indian girls are brought up in India. In India gender equality is a ‘given’ only to a few women, whereas in Australia this is a concept girls learn at school, at home, and socially when mixing with the opposite sex. Gender equality means having an equal say and receiving equal respect in all aspects of life, even in arguments, disagreements and discussions.”

The second issue is the scenario where marriages and alliances are sought purely to migrate to Australia. In several parts of India, contract or paper marriages are advertised brazenly in order to get residency. Matchmaking within social circles can also be fraught with unpleasant experiences. As a result, parents and marriageable Australian Indians could benefit from treading very carefully in their search for a suitable alliance.

“Yes I have known young men in particular who get married in order to come to Australia,” Dr O’Connor says. “In one case, after arriving, the young man has become abusive and violent; his family in India kept the jewellery given in dowry and the cash which was meant for TAFE fees. On the flip side, I know people who have PR and feel this gives them the upper hand in the relationship. They want to use this to maintain power and bully their spouse from India.”

Muktesh Chibber, who works for Relationships Australia and Indian Family Relationship Services as a Family and Relationship Therapist and family law mediator, concurs.

“From my exhaustive experience (25 years) of having worked within the community and with the community in mainstream organisations, I agree that many have exploited the sacred institution of marriage as a ticket to enter Australia and have sadly abused the very foundation of trust. The main cause, obviously, is selfishness leading to manipulation. I say selfish because they intentionally enter into a relationship with their own agenda for their own gains and inevitably for the purpose of destroying the life and hard work of their partner.”

Another factor could be the custom of dowry, which sadly continues to play a significant role in modern-day India.

Manjula O’Connor has recently taken up the cudgels in the fight against this social evil.

“Dowry issues are extremely important, especially in the early years. Down the track, the dowry issue gets buried but on-going abuse takes hold, so that the couple’s bonding is disrupted and the marriage is never allowed to be happy.”

Society needs to stand up and abolish this age-old custom, she stresses.

“We do not want dollars and rupees to determine the level of respect and love our girls will receive. We do not want to reduce the sanctity of marriage to the value of dowry.”

Also worth looking at in this context, are the obstacles in legal recourse. Does Australian law provide adequate resolution/ protection in these cross-continental alliances?

“No, there is no provision to protect men and women across the continents,” avers O’Connor. “We need laws and rules to ban the taking and giving of dowry. If there are marriages in India held under traditional lines then divorce must also occur on traditional lines. There needs to be a dialogue between India and Australia, to set up a body or a structure that will make it easy to hear complaints and make sensible and good decisions in decent time, where bribes cannot be taken and given, and where the guilty are genuinely punished.”

Relationship professionals are now drawing up guidelines that parents and prospective grooms and brides can follow to ensure they are not the next victim, listing warning signs to look out for.

The need to investigate scrupulously is a must, says Chibber.

“In my experience, most marriages where the spouse is from India can be classified as an arranged match. Family members or parents mainly arrange the match and in some cases the partner living in Australia may not even have a say in the decision. It is difficult in this scenario to assess the intention of the fiancée. Investigate thoroughly before plunging into a relationship. Ask pertinent questions; investigate the partners and family’s previous history to establish any instances of violence or family greed. Speak to the extended social circle including family and friends, and finally rely on your own gut feelings.”

Soumya Srivastava, an India-based family consultant, also stresses this as imperative, irrespective of whether the spouse is being chosen from Australia or India. Check whether anyone in the family has previously ditched their partner for trivial reasons, she advises, or if the person has had a relationship where the person is still a frequent visitor to the home. Check whether the family has large debts and if no dowry was exchanged put it in writing and ensure that everyone involved has signed it. “These may sound like extreme measures, but believe me they help when push comes to shove,” Soumya adds.

“Marriage is worth making the effort for, worth preparing for and if that involves having a strategy to ensure that you are making the right choice, there is certainly no harm in doing so. After all everyone would ideally like his or her marriage to be a gift, not a gamble,” says Soumya.

O’Connor goes a step further, advocating premarital counselling. “The boy and girl must be allowed to date and meet face to face,” she notes. “They must receive pre-marital counselling, where issues of gender equality and equal respect are discussed, truly understood and then carried out in action.”

In the light of the increasing incidence of domestic violence, it is important to educate people about the signs and behavioral traits that serve as warnings of someone’s potential to become abusive. These signs may not be exhibited in the initial stages of the relationship, however once the relationship progresses these traits will inevitably present themselves. Unreasonable jealousy, externalisation of responsibilities, gender bias, substance or alcohol abuse, verbal abuse, cruelty to animals and children, using force especially in anger and past abuse are some of the things to look out for. All abusive people may not necessarily show the same traits, however if anyone displays a number of the above personality signs then they may be predisposed towards abuse. Abusers exist in every culture, ethnic group and nationality in the world.

To quote Muktesh Chibber, “Relationships are whereby two people make a commitment to walk the terrain of life’s journey together, and not work against each other.”

*Not their real names


> National Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence hotline

1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732)

> Domestic Violence Victoria

9921 0828, 1800respect.org.au

> Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria 9486 9866

> Safe Steps Family Violence Response 1800 015 188, 9928 9600

Preeti Jabbal
Preeti Jabbal
Preeti is the Melbourne Coordinator of Indian Link.

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