Melbourne psychiatrist battles dowry abuse: ‘Women don’t sit and take it’ | Australian books

In 2008, Manjula Datta O’Connor was working as a psychiatrist in a private practice in Melbourne’s central business district, usually seeing many corporate clients, when one day a “very distressed” Indian student arrived for an appointment . The woman told O’Connor she had a “dowry problem”: her husband and sister-in-law belittled her for not giving enough dowry, wanting more money, and controlling her income. When she refused, “it led to violence, verbal abuse and punishment”.

Soon O’Connor had a series of Indian women – perhaps reflecting increased numbers of overseas students arriving in Australia – presenting similar stories.

“I recognized the model. It was similar to what you find in India,” she says. “There was no knowledge or awareness of this problem in Australia, but it was causing mental illness, suicide and murder.”

“Most South Asian homes are peaceful and harmonious,” says O’Connor, but dowry abuse is a recognized problem. The offering or asking for dowry itself, a common practice in many cultures, is not considered abusive; rather, the abuse, says O’Connor, is the “distortion of a well-meaning ancient cultural practice”, where gifts or money provided by the bride’s family – intended to help the bride in her married life – are extorted by the groom and his family and when a woman’s worth and worth is determined by the wealth she brings.

According to O’Connor, dowry abuse is the primary driver of most cases of domestic violence in the South Asian migrant community. While some women may also face other forms of abuse, such as threats of visa sponsorship withdrawal if they don’t comply with a spouse, “when you really dig deep, it all starts with the dissatisfaction with the amount of things she brought into the marriage”.

The women O’Connor treated in his psychiatric practice were very traumatized. “I would find these women to be in an extremely high state of anxiety and hypervigilance. They did not sleep [properly] often for months. They haven’t eaten properly for months. They were anemic.

“Often their blood pressure was high when they had never had a blood pressure problem before. Headaches, panic attacks, severe anxiety, depression, desire to commit suicide. »

The women O’Connor sees are just the tip of the iceberg. A recent national survey from the South Asian community led by O’Connor found that 32% of those surveyed either suffered from dowry abuse or knew someone who had.

A personal puzzle

This month sees the release of O’Connor’s book, Daughters of Durga. Writing it was an opportunity for O’Connor to put down everything she learned about the phenomenon of dowry abuse, but it was also a chance for her to unravel her own character – and the anti-authoritarian streak she’s had since she was a kid.

Growing up in Delhi, O’Connor’s father was loving, kind and selfless, but also sometimes overbearing. While writing this book, she realized, “I think I had anger about this oppression…and most of my life I think I constantly pushed it away in little ways.

“A courageous and fearless attitude…that’s part of what education does to you”… Manjula O’Connor Photograph: Jackson Gallagher/The Guardian

“Maybe what I do is partly because of my relationship with my father?”

Although O’Connor’s father wouldn’t allow her mother to work outside the family home, he always wanted Manjula to become a doctor and gave her access to the best possible education – something she credits to to be extremely formative.

“In medical school, we were the hip generation. We were the modern generation. We were the generation that wasn’t going to be like our parents, not be afraid of anything,” she says. “There were all these number of factors that created this kind of brave and fearless attitude… It’s partly what education does to you.”

Weekend in Australia
Weekend in Australia

Diving into his childhood resurfaced a pivotal memory. One day, in Delhi, a white woman comes to the family home to ask to see her uncle. While her uncle refused to come out, denying knowing the woman, even as a child, O’Connor realized they must have had an affair. “And I remember thinking, ‘That’s a possibility. You don’t have to be married in your own culture, do you?

Maybe that planted a seed. Many years later, she fell in love with an Australian country boy and married him. what was “the most beautiful moment of my life”.

‘Death Against Me’

Years later, in 2012, O’Connor co-founded the Australasian Center for Human Rights and Health – an NGO set up to campaign against dowry abuse and domestic violence in migrant communities.

“After we started our campaign,” she says, “the patriarchal structures in our community were squarely against me because they thought I was shaming the community by specifically naming dowry abuse and they wanted let it be nothing.

“But I was of the opinion that it had to be named, otherwise the women themselves wouldn’t recognize it and the domestic violence service providers wouldn’t know and the police wouldn’t know what to do. magistrates will not know what to do.

O’Connor says there has been a “steady pushback” over the past decade as she has spoken out against domestic violence and dowry abuse within her community.

Manjula O'Connor
‘[Women are] going out and asking for help in large numbers, but we’re still not reaching everyone,” says O’Connor. Photograph: Jackson Gallagher/The Guardian

She has not been deterred by the resistance, which has included social isolation, whispering campaigns claiming her cause is “bogus” and that she is simply trying to lure more patients into her psychiatric practice.

“As if I didn’t already have a waiting list in my office for patients! she says.

“Every time I heard something like that, the next day in my office, I saw five or six girls crying in despair, telling me horrible stories. Now, by whom should I be moved? It was very simple in my head,” she said.

The work to do

Dowry abuse is now recognized in Victoria’s Domestic Violence Protection Act and although awareness is not uniform or consistent, police, immigration officers and service providers are increasingly recognizing that the women they interact with can be victimized.

“Certainly, by breaking the silence, what we’ve done is that women don’t sit around and take it until they’re killed. They’re going out a lot more and asking for help in large numbers, but we’re still not reaching everyone,” says O’Connor.

In 2020, a local police officer discovered that in the previous year there had been a group of seven Indian women who committed suicide in the Melbourne suburb of Epping. The analysis showed that five of the seven women had documented histories of domestic violence. All were new immigrants, living on the outskirts of town; the majority did not have a driver’s license or a job.

O’Connor analyzed her own clinical caseload of South Asian women who escaped domestic violence, finding that 75% had suicidal thoughts and 17% acted on those thoughts.

“There is a domestic violence service for immigrant women in Victoria,” says O’Connor. “But there is only one service. We need at least three or four of these services… Women are not getting the help they need.

The Daughters of Durga cover
The cover of Daughters of Durga by Manjula Datta O’Connor. Photography: MUP

O’Connor’s next goal is to start a conversation in India. It is work, however, that is not without burden.

“It’s a double-edged sword in the sense that yes, I think it’s really good that everyone knows that now and that the women themselves know that they will be heard by the system.

“I’m also very aware of how the Indian community feels like I’m denouncing and blaming them for saying that word ‘dowry abuse’,” she says. “Those are two feelings all the time in my mind.”

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