Standing on her own two feet – a migrant woman’s journey to self-reliance
Overcoming family violence and economic exclusion, Indian migrant Ritu Dhar has forged a life for herself as a courageous, independent woman.
As an escapee from an abusive arranged marriage alone in a strange country with no money, no job and a 15-month-old child, life looked grim for Indian migrant Ritu Dhar.
Subjected to emotional and financial abuse and prohibited from doing almost anything without her overbearing husband’s permission, she faced an invidious choice; buckle down obediently or go home to India in disgrace.
But the 42-year-old’s inspirational journey from near destitution to a successful, independent woman stands as an example for other women who are the victims of abusive relationships; and as a testament to her own resilience.
She spent a year carefully planning her escape from abuse and servitude and has spent the next decade building a future for herself and her son.
She slowly put together the documents she would need and even collected spare change so she would have her own money when the time came for her to leave. “I was determined my son and I would have a life of our own and I started working towards that. I knew I had the willpower to make it happen,” Ritu said.
Originally from Kashmir, Ritu grew up in a middle-class family in New Delhi. After graduating with an arts degree and studying an MBA she worked in a series of office jobs. Then in 2002, in an arranged marriage, she wed an Indian professional living in Australia.
“I was married at age 30, which is quite late for Indian women,” Ritu says.
“I was very scared even to travel by aeroplane alone. I had been very protected and insulated in India which is a very conservative society. There was no nightlife, no boyfriends. I had always dreamed of living in a foreign land but because I wasn’t an engineer or a doctor people thought I wasn’t worth anything.
“In India as a woman you are not allowed to do what you want. I was well educated but the only jobs I could get were admin or reception roles. I wanted something better in life but that better thing never came.
“So, I was very happy to get married but I knew nothing of Australia or its people. I was scared that people wouldn’t be able to understand me even though I had a good command of English.
“And I really didn’t know how to talk to Australians or how the society worked,” Ritu said.
As soon as Ritu arrived in Australia, things went sour and she realised her husband was not the man she thought she had married. “My husband was overbearing and controlling. He just didn’t want to know about my dreams and ambitions. And my life was so controlled that I might just as well have stayed in India because I had no freedom.
“I’m a strong headed woman and slowly I came to realise that a proper life was being denied me. For two years, he never taught me anything. I didn’t have any money, I had no friends of my own, I couldn’t drive, I didn’t even know how to use an ATM,” Ritu said.
In 2003, Ritu fell pregnant with her son Amal, now 14. AS her marriage disintegrated, Ritu’s life continued to spiral into a morass of fear and depression.
“I was always scared when he came home from work every day. There was never any physical violence but there was emotional, psychological and financial abuse.
“He would tell me I was good for nothing. ‘I don’t know why I married you – it was the worst decision of my life,’ he said.
“I had no one to turn to. I knew no one. The emotional abuse became so bad that I would sit and cry in the house. My husband never cared about me. All he wanted was food on the table on time – but even that was never cooked properly or to his liking.
“Thankfully my mum was there for me – she had arrived two days before Amal was born,” she said.
At that point, Ritu realised she wanted her husband out of her life but she had no job, no money and a newborn baby.
“I decided I would bear one more year of emotional torture for the sake of my son and from that moment I started planning my escape”.
Ritu started looking for help, calling from payphones so her husband wouldn’t see the numbers she was dialling.
“Somehow I knew there would be a future for me and my son but my eyes had been opened to the fact that I could not live for long in the situation I was in,” she said.
Ritu met a single mum who worked for Centrelink and was given advice and guided through her predicament. She started planning for her and her son’s future.
“My situation and my determination to escape it made me the woman I am today. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.
“And as I talked to people, I realised there was help available. Even if I was on the street, I knew that in Australia the government and other agencies would help me,” Ritu said.
With her plan in place, Ritu finally decided it was time to strike out on her own.
“She called a friend who came in her car. They loaded as many of her belongings as they could fit in the car and drove away.
“I remember saying to him in my mind at that time ‘I will never again have you in my life,” she said.
Ritu was never allowed her own money but she put together an escape fund by collecting spare change left around the house. After a year she had the princely sum of $20 in a bank account she had secretly established.
“I collected five cent pieces from the floor and spare change so that I would have some money that I could call my own. It was only $20 but it was mine.
“I watched closely so that I could learn how to do things – how to operate in Australia. I watched how he made withdrawals from an ATM and I watched him talk to people in shops and behind counters,” she said.
Ritu spent three months in a women’s refuge. She was helped by social workers from her local council to access Centrelink benefits and ultimately find her own accommodation.
“When we moved in we literally had nothing. My son and I slept on the floor but it was wonderful to have our own home.”
In 2005 Ritu secured her first job in Australia helping to run a school canteen as part of a social enterprise set up by settlement agency AMES. Through AMES she completed food handling and hospitality courses.
“We ran the canteen for three years and I was getting paid. Apart from the birth of my son, it was the best moment of my life,” Ritu said.
“I wanted to improve myself and meet more people so I agreed to speak about my experiences as a migrant woman. I was trembling before I spoke but I felt I needed to tell my story,” she said.
Ritu’s confidence grew as she made connections in her community and through childcare and women’s groups. She moved on from the canteen to a job as a teller with the ANZ Bank and then as an employment consultant.
But as a single mother, she said she has found it difficult to gain acceptance in the Indian community.
Her trials have extended beyond an abusive marriage. In 2011 she hurt her back in a car accident and was forced to leave her bank job and last year she beat breast cancer.
“Things have slowly changed for me. There have been challenges and difficulties but when I look at where I am now compared to the worst days during my marriage I’m happy and I feel I have achieved a lot.
“And I’m very grateful for all the people who have helped me along the way. I am very grateful to a few people especially; Amara Hamid, a social worker with Kingston Council, Nada Mochevic who worked for AMES and helped me get my first job and Melba Marginson, the director of the Victorian Immigrant and Refugee Women’s Coalition,” Ritu said.
In 2012 Ritu began working at the Hard Loch Café, in the picturesque Gippsland village of Loch and for time owned the business.
Two months after taking on her café, Ritu was diagnosed with breast cancer. She spent ten days in the hospital and endured a year of chemotherapy.
Two weeks after being released from the hospital, she was back running her business. She was recently given a clean bill of health.
“Since the day I arrived in Australia, I haven’t stopped. I’ve done whatever it has taken to get to where I am now,” she said.
But wanting to spend more time with her son, she now works as a teacher’s aide.
“I’m blessed to be in this country and I could never have had this life in India. This country has allowed me to become what I always wanted to be. “It has been an incredible journey for me in Australia for the past 15 years,” she said.
Ritu says that religion has helped her through successive ordeals in her life.
A Hindu, she had limited opportunities to visit temples but found solace in the idea that there is one supreme creator and protector.
“To me, there is one almighty God no matter what your religion so I would go and sit outside churches and pray to God and to Jesus for help – even as a Hindu. I believed Jesus was there to help me and when I prayed, channels opened up for me and people started coming into my life,” Ritu said.
Twelve years on from the start of her life in Australia, Ritu has some trenchant advice for other women trapped in abusive relationships.
“I would say to women: don’t succumb to the situation – it does not have to be like this. You have the right to your individuality, you have the right to live and there is help out there.
“If there is one thing I have learned it is that you do not need to suffer. And, the quicker you take the decision to get out, the better.
“Take hold of the opportunities that come your way and never give up your dreams and hopes. If you have the will and determination, you will achieve your dreams as I have.”