Dowry payment, wherever practiced, is a system that establishes, enshrines and perpetuates harassment for dowry payment, gender inequality and dowry violence, especially against women, among South Sudanese communities.
The practice of dowry is not well understood in Australia yet as the Victorian Royal Commission Report into Family Violence (2016) reports, dowry payment is fuelling family violence. Reflecting on my own mother’s circumstances living in the Sudan, the negative consequence of dowry payment on her is a story of exploitation and cruelty. The general norm is, once dowries are paid, a wife is expected to bear the ‘reasonable’ demands of her husband.
Having been bought by dowry, her place is in the home, not in the world of men. I regularly recall her waking early and working on the farm with my father. Having already spent eight hours in the field, she was expected to keep up all her responsibilities at home, for example cooking, collecting water, firewood and washing clothes, which included washing for extended relatives, with the occasional assistance from her daughters.
My mother also had to submit to the will of my father. Practically this would mean allowing him to control family finances, even though she contributed to the family income; always meeting his needs above anyone else and, always seeking his permission to visit relatives or friends.
If my mother refused to comply with the expectations of her gender, my father exercised his right to discipline her by giving her a beating. In addition to her heavy domestic duties, my mother gave birth to a new baby every two years. She nursed four pairs of twins and three other single born. Working and rearing children within war, displacement and refugee life, she finally succumbed – and died early before any of her children became adult.
I would like to believe that the practice of dowry is something that happens in the Sudan but not in Australia. But the sad truth is that dowry demands are common here. Over the last few years and, since working as a parish priest in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, I have met many young people who are looking to marry. Many of them have expressed concern about the amounts of money demanded from the brides family, which can range from $20,000 to $80,000 excluding expenses for the wedding or marriage ceremony.
I have heard stories of men who have gone back to the Sudan to marry and have paid big sums of money. The newly married woman then joins her husband, settling in Australia and transfers these gender expectations to Australia, their host country. Last year, a woman in my parish was beaten severely for not doing as she was told and later died of her injuries. She had only been in the country for six weeks.
In another congregation it was reported to me that three women had died over the last five years in what was clearly seen by the leadership as dowry related domestic violence. A recent case is that of Suzil Oghia. After a temporary separation in October 2016, the husband was told, if he wanted to resume his relationship, he would have to pay the family dowry.
In whatever way one looks at the practice of dowry in any culture, even with the best of intentions, dowry and the associated materialism and promise of social mobility, over powers any idea of a loving relationship based on Christian values of equality and respect between men and women.
Dowry demands block all ways to happiness for the families involved and couples. It is a corrupt practice that perpetuates gender inequality which has, in some reported cases, led to death.
If leadership is to tackle the issue of dowry related domestic violence head-on, we need a new ‘No dowry marriage’ mindset. I therefore suggest the following:
- Religious leadership, in particular male leadership, need to talk widely and create awareness about dowry and its implications on families. Most victims still see dowry arrangements as normal
- Men need to challenge other men and boys attitudes and behaviours about the role and place of women and girls in our culture
- Men also need to challenge attitudes and behaviours that minimise violence, ‘I am entitled to discipline her as she did not do as I asked’
- Men need to promote mutuality, equality, respect and discourage traditional gender roles such as ‘men don’t cook’, ‘only women look after children’
- Local governments need to provide prompt and effective support for women who choose to stay and/ or leave an abusive relationship
- The Australian government should legislate against dowry demands