On the night of December 13, 2014, Deepshikha Godara was stabbed, beaten and strangled to death by her estranged husband, Sunil Beniwal. Sunil then fled their home in Melbourne, Australia, and deliberately drove his car into the path of an oncoming truck. He died instantly.
A coroner ruled that Deepshikha’s sudden and violent death came after years of prolonged physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her husband.
There are fears that such violence is growing in Australia, triggered by the Indian tradition of dowry – where a bride and her family provide gifts and money to the groom and his family.
For Deepshikha’s husband, her family’s payments were never enough.
India outlawed the dowry practice nearly 60 years ago, but even today, one woman dies there every hour in a dowry-related incident, according to the country’s National Crime Records Bureau.
As more Indians move to Australia, more cases are showing that this deadly menace has made its way overseas.
Every year, psychiatrist Dr Manjula O’Connor sees hundreds of women at her medical practice seeking help after being harassed to provide a dowry.
“In Australia, we do have documented files of murder and suicide due to dowry,” she says.
“The higher the social status of the groom, the more dowry he can demand. I have heard that so many times from the younger women. The mother-in-law and the father-in-law say that ‘My son lives in Australia, don’t you think that he deserves more? He lives in Australia, he has to be honoured.'”
It is not illegal to give or take dowry in Australia, but late last year, a royal commission into family violence recommended that dowry be legally recognised as a form of abuse.
“We want the dowry to be recognised as an act of domestic violence,” Dr O’Connor says. “It will help bring the laws in line with what is happening in India.”
Dead at the hands of her husband
Deepshikha was a 25-year-old physiotherapist living in the Indian capital, New Delhi, when her family arranged her marriage to Sunil, an Australian citizen.
“He was a beautiful guy, a smart guy,” Deepshikha’s father, Ashok Kumar Godara, told Al Jazeera in an interview at his home in New Delhi. “Well-educated and well-behaved. Outwardly, he looked like a very social person and I was very satisfied with him. I agreed to the marriage.”
Deepshikha’s family then organised a dowry, which included gold, diamond necklaces and money.
But soon after Deepshika moved to Australia, they say her husband and his family began demanding more.
One year into her marriage, the demands for more dowry got so bad Deepshikha went to the police.
I lost my confidence and I can see myself falling down into hell. I never expected that
But Dr O’Connor says the local police didn’t understand how dangerous issues around dowry could be.
“If this was in India, the police would have known the seriousness of that situation, that this is the kind of situation that leads to murders and deaths of women, and they would have taken serious action against the groom.”
Two years later, Deepshikha was dead at the hands of her husband.
The high cost of marriage
Like Deepshikha, Indian national Sujana was also a victim of dowry abuse in Australia.
Sujana was an aerospace engineer – independent and successful – when, at 27 years of age, her parents arranged her marriage to an Australian citizen.
What followed was nearly two years of abuse. It began with the pre-marital dowry negotiations between Sujana and her groom’s family.
“Their demands were like touching the sky – the cars, the silver,” she says. “Their list was too big.”
Sujana says her family eventually paid a dowry worth almost $40,000 in cash, gold and silver to her husband’s family.
But even that wasn’t enough to satisfy her husband.
“He wanted thousands of dollars, which I know that my parents couldn’t afford,” she says. “The way he used to scream at me, I used to panic. And after a while, I think I was sort of giving up – whatever you want to do, you do it.”
As the marriage continued, she says so, too, did the dowry demands and the abuse – physical, sexual and emotional.
Now divorced, she has lost a lot more than her marriage. She knows that she can never recover her family’s money – but she also knows she may herself never recover.
“I lost my confidence and I can see myself falling down into hell. I never expected that,” she says.
While her marriage came at a high cost, she hopes Australia will move quickly to outlaw the dowry practice so that other women like her won’t have to pay the price.