Australia How demands for dowry and domestic duties can become weapons of coercive control
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Every morning, Shalini* had to be up at 4:30am to cook a hot breakfast and prepare lunch for her husband and his parents before leaving for work.
She would return home in the evening, and then the demands for dinner would start.
"As soon as I would come home, they would say, 'You are back so late. What shall we have for dinner?'" Shalini said.
"They didn't even have any compassion for me.
"I used to eat a packet of biscuits and drink a glass of water and start cooking."
She did not know it, but according to an expert, this is what coercive control looks like for many women in migrant and multicultural communities.
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A year on from the murder ofby Rowan Baxter in Queensland, there is a push for a national definition of coercive control.
New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, the Northern Territory and Victoria are allcontrol.
Abuse 'shaped and fashioned' by culture
The chair of the Family Violence Psychiatry Network at the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, Manjula O'Connor, says domestic violence is more than episodic beatings.
"The essential nature of domestic violence is coercive control," Dr O'Connor said.
"What coercive control effectively does is it creates a condition, which is like entrapment of the victim.
"And there are many different types of coercive controlling behaviours."
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She said some of the key factors were dominance and controlling to the extreme degree, like micromanaging and watching everything the partner did, intimidation and threats — which could lead to physical violence.
But Dr O'Connor, who has been researching family violence and mental health in immigrant communities for the past 10 years, said the tools used to dominate were different in multicultural communities.
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Any legislative reform must account for the lived experience of these women, she said.
"The nature of patriarchy is shaped and is fashioned by the particular culture that the victim and the perpetrator belong to — whether mainstream or diverse," Dr O'Connor said.
"In many of the patriarchal cultures, the woman is expected to carry out the household chores, completely on her own.
"And in a controlling, coercive system, this could become almost like domestic slavery.
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"She is required to work full time, but also has to get up early in the morning and prepare hot breakfast for everyone and prepare the lunches for their work tiffin and in the evening, come home, cook for the family."
Dr O'Connor said the women lived in a fear-laden environment where any challenge to the perpetrator's commands was met with humiliation, criticisms of her ability and making her feel worthless.
Told to 'adjust', Shalini's abuse escalated
Married in her early 20s, Shalini thought what she was experiencing was normal.
"If one day also I didn't cook food, my husband and his family used to tell my parents that I did not do my household duties and I am a bad woman who didn't give any priority to my family," she said.
"I used to think, 'Now I am married, so this is my life'."
When Shalini turned to her parents for support, she was told to "adjust" and maintain the marriage at all costs.
But despite "adjusting", the abuse only escalated.
"He was a control freak," Shalini said.
"I was independent. I was working. Slowly, steadily, very carefully, he managed to cut me off from my job by emotionally blackmailing me. He made me financially dependent on himself.
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"I felt suffocated and trapped."
With no bank cards, the only money Shalini had was the small amount of cash her husband would dole out — of which she had to keep a strict account.
She said he started tracking her email, following her to her appointments. Failure to comply with his edicts would be followed by days, weeks and months of silence.
"The whole house would be totally silent," Shalini said.
"I was so scared, always thinking, 'What is he going to do? What is he going to do?'"
Dr O'Connor said many of the victim-surviors were on spousal visas, which made them particularly vulnerable to threats of being sent back home.
She said, in turn, the women were often under pressure from their parents to avoid the "shame" of a divorce in the family.
Dr O'Connor said if the woman lived in a joint family, the man's parents could also be part of the coercive control, especially when it came to demands for dowry and gifts.
Demands for 'adequate' dowry
Manisha* could not believe her luck when she met her future husband.
He presented as a kind, supportive and understanding man — an ideal match.
But once the elaborate rituals started, so did the demands for dowry.
After the wedding, the failure to give "adequate" dowry resulted in physical and verbal abuse.
Manisha was also expected to hand over her income to her husband.
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"As soon as we married, he was changed," she said.
"I was treated like a maid. Cooking, cleaning was my responsibility. There were non-stop fights about the money. He didn't let me study."
Her husband also started hitting her and sexually forcing himself upon her.
"I was not allowed to see my friends," she said.
"He became my shadow. I had to report every minute to him."
Being on a spousal visa made her more vulnerable.
Things got worse when the man's family visited the couple in Australia and joined in abusing her.
Manisha, who is now divorced, said for a long time, she believed her husband when he said the problems between them were her fault.
Calls for a graded system of punishment
Dr O'Connor said many women from diverse communities often failed to understand the difference between cultural norms around gender roles and coercive controlling behaviour.
That is why, she said, it was important to have conversations about what coercive control looked like in these communities.
It would also help police recognise the violence when they came across those behaviours, Dr O'Connor said.
While there is consensus among advocacy groups and survivors that coercive control needs to be identified and recognised, views differ on whether it should be criminalised.
Dr O'Connor said criminalising coercive control was essential, however, there needed to be a graded response based on the severity of the abuse, with a view to rehabilitating the perpetrator.
She said the punishment could range from counselling to prison.
"A lot of the women do not go to the police to seek help because they want to maintain the family structure," she said.
"She may not want to lose him because maybe she will lose her sole financial support or lose her Australian visa. An easy prison sentence would disrupt a lot of families.
"It would help the women approach the police if they knew that seeking help would not harm the perpetrator."
Now separated, Shalini is rebuilding her life.
She said the conversation around domestic violence and coercive control helped her identify where cultural gender roles ended and abuse began.
"After separation, I understood what I was going through," Shalini said.
"I was broken completely. I was shattered.
"Now, I feel very confident. It is okay to breathe free, just like a newborn child."
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the coercive control survivors.
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