Culture – no excuse for violence against women

I recently helped to plan a National Summit, organised by the Australasian Centre for Human Rights and Health, seeking to raise awareness about the impact of dowry related domestic violence on victims, their families and the wider community in Australia and to explore the legal recourse for victims.

Dowry, a centuries-old custom which is practised across the world, involves in Indian culture a woman’s family paying her new husband’s family. Unlike India, where the bride’s family pays a dowry to the groom to recognise that he will provide for his wife, in Africa, it’s the other way round. The groom pays dowry to the bride’s family and once she is purchased, women can be on the receiving end of horrifying abuse.

In my consultations with faith communities, it is common to hear men and women cite tradition and culture to justify  dowry. The traditional values argument, espoused by some, cast the practice of dowry as somehow a “moral issue.”  But for women, upon whose shoulders the burden of upholding cultural norms and values often falls, the traditional values argument is a smokescreen, conflated by majority opinion, to protect men’s entitlements and curtail women’s basic freedom. As one woman expressed to me recently “they talk about African traditions, but there is no tradition you can speak of- just double standards.”

The good news is that there are efforts by some men to transform these cultural practices. A Baptist pastor of an African community, located in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, said: “this idea that our culture is unchangeable does not acknowledge how my culture has changed since arriving in Australia from the refugee camp.”

He said, “Marriage is more than a spreadsheet listing monetary and remaining contributions. The day people start marrying for love and companionship, instead of for any other reason,  we’ll find less takers for dowry. Of course, it may not be eliminated totally, but it is a step in the right direction.”

“It’s up to men to acknowledge their self interest in dowry and to stop this kind of slavery where a woman’s sole purpose in life is to serve her father, brother, husband for the entirety of her existence,” he said.

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