Grooms look on during a mass wedding for 41 couple in India. Mass weddings are organised to help families who cannot afford high ceremony costs as well as the elaborate dowry which is customary in many communities. Picture: AP/Ajit Solanki
Grooms look on during a mass wedding for 41 couple in India. Mass weddings are organised to help families who cannot afford high ceremony costs as well as the elaborate dowry which is customary in many communities. Picture: AP/Ajit Solanki

How can it be legal to trade women for cash?

It all seems like a problem far away, the practice of trading a woman into marriage for a sum.

But the dreadful custom, and the associated violence against Indian and South Asian women over these dowry payments, is right in our space, and sometimes planted squarely in our backyard.

One such case played out in the Maroochydore Magistrates Court this week, on a Monday afternoon that would have been picture perfect but for the violence that was recounted.

The court was told the man has lived in Australia for a decade, staying on after he came here from India to study business at a Melbourne university but then secured citizenship as so many do.

This set the scene for what was to come.

Indian men who are permanent residents or Australian citizens are attractive in dowry dealings, because families want their female offspring to live in this bountiful land, where they might also be able to grease the wheels for other family members to join them.

It is a lucrative legal loophole too many skip through openly and happily, aided and abetted by a lack of Australian legal safeguards.

In countries such as India, there are mass weddings for those than can’t afford a dowry, even though dowries have been outlawed there. Picture: AP/Ajit Solanki)
In countries such as India, there are mass weddings for those than can’t afford a dowry, even though dowries have been outlawed there. Picture: AP/Ajit Solanki)

University educated, the man (who can't be legally named to protect his victim) might be making a life here in beautiful Noosa, but he has not embraced our ways - not entirely.

For a start, his life is dictated not by love, but money.

In January, he travelled to India and made a bride of the woman his parents had selected for him. She was traded with the promise of $10,000 to him and another $10,000 to his family.

It was as if she were a pet, a painting, a thing, a side of meat.

After they exchanged vows in India, the man brought her to Queensland, where she and her family presumed that she would live out her days in a sun-kissed, affluent paradise.

But the court heard that like so many dowry brides, the young wife found halcyon can become hell when some of the dowry remained outstanding.

The police prosecutor told the Maroochydore court that the two weeks straddling May and June were terrifying for the man's new wife.

The man slapped her, bruised her, pulled her hair, dragged her from room to room, smashed a glass nearby and threw a cup of tea in her direction - and all over the lack of payment. She fled and unlike so many like her, sought help.

The husband pleaded guilty to assault occasioning bodily harm, common assault and contravening a DV order. Alarmingly, he is not mentally ill, sought no counselling, has shown no remorse and is seemingly well respected at work and in his community.

The young groom is a classic Jekyll/Hyde character, as so many DV abusers are.

His solicitor said he was egged on by family in India and admitted he did threaten to kill his wife, but pointed out he was not charged over making threats.

Trading women into marriage for money can provide a template for abuse. Picture: iStock
Trading women into marriage for money can provide a template for abuse. Picture: iStock

The prosecutor told the court the man must have known such behaviour is unacceptable in this country "regardless of race, creed or clan" and that his offending had coercive, controlling, patriarchal undertones of not grounded in civil Australian society.

But, incredibly, it is not illegal in Australia to effectively purchase a person if it is couched in a marriage.

It is lawful for parents to pay a man and his family to marry their daughter, even if she does not know him, let alone love him.

This Australian tolerance is even more incredible, considering the practice has been illegal in India since 1961.

Of course, not all dowry brides end up battered and belittled, but the practice of it provides a template for abuse here, with a language barrier, money in play and the hopes of a family riding on the sale of an isolated woman.

The abuse and isolation of the women bought to Australia via arranged marriages was repeatedly told to the recent Senate inquiry into dowry abuse, which is due to report in February.

But we do not need to wait for it to know that in this era of focusing on the horrors of domestic violence, surely a simple preventive act could make all the difference: brides bought with a dowry must not be allowed to be brought here.

Magistrate Maxine Baldwin sentenced the man in the Maroochydore court on Monday to a six-month jail term, suspended for two years, and ordered him to complete a DV prevention program. He is not allowed to make contact with his wife.

We should no longer stand idly by and wait for bought brides to be harmed by their husbands. It is time to shut down the gateway.

Dr Jane Fynes-Clinton is a journalism academic at University of the Sunshine Coast.