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The body of the 23-year-old rape victim was brought back to her home in New Delhi in this photo from Dec. 30, 2012.

Saurabh Das, Associated Press

Gang rape, daughter's death shatter New Delhi family's dreams

  • Article by: MUNEEZA NAQVI
  • Associated Press
  • February 3, 2013 - 11:06 PM

NEW DELHI - Her parents called her "bitiya" or "little daughter." She was her family's biggest hope. In a country where women are routinely pushed into subservience, this 23-year-old who dreamed of becoming a doctor was going to lift them out of poverty.

"Without her we are lost," said her father, rocking on the edge of a bed in the family's tiny basement apartment, hugging himself as if to hold in the grief. The sadness enveloped him as he talked of his daughter, who died after she was gang-raped in a bus and then dumped bleeding alongside a New Delhi road in December, a case that galvanized public anger in India over sexual attacks and the inability of authorities to stop them.

Indian culture has a deeply rooted preference for sons, and many daughters are expected to spend their lives caring for first their brothers and later their husbands. Yet these parents encouraged their bright, hardworking daughter to shine.

"I never discriminated between my sons and daughter. I could see nothing else in this world but my children. They had to study at any cost," the father said.

Because of a legal gag order, the victim and her family cannot be identified until the end of the trial of alleged rapists.

The family reflects a small but growing part of Indian society that is changing. When their daughter said she wanted to go away to study physiotherapy in a hill town far from New Delhi, her father didn't think of holding her back. He asked the older son, who is in his late teens, to delay enrollment at an engineering college until his sister finished her studies. Money was scarce, and she was first in line.

"She was the hero of the film in our family. Always happy. Always laughing," the father said.

Few choices for women

For most women in this country of 1.2 billion, there are few real choices. Tradition says they will get married and become mothers, preferably of boys. If they work, the money will go to their fathers or their husbands.

The mistreatment starts early -- with sex-selective abortions and even female infanticides that have skewed India's gender ratio to 914 girls under age 6 for every 1,000 boys. Girls get less medical care and less education than their brothers.

Twenty-five years ago, the victim's father got through high school, left his north Indian farming village and moved to New Delhi to escape poverty. He is still poor, he admits freely, and works long hours as a baggage handler at the New Delhi airport. But he was able to give his children something else -- a better education.

In the father's absence, it was the daughter both parents trusted most.

"She was the head of the family in the real sense," the father said. "Now that she is gone I can't even see tomorrow clearly. I have no idea about the future."

Big dreams

It was a responsibility she took seriously. By the time she was in the ninth grade she was already working -- tutoring younger children in her neighborhood -- to help pay her school fees.

She also watched over her brothers to make sure they weren't falling behind in class.

The father had big dreams for her. But her dreams were bigger.

"She wanted to become a doctor. A really good doctor," he said.

Maybe that dream would have come true eventually. But she chose a less expensive route. Four years ago, she enrolled in a physiotherapy course at a school in Dehradun, a tiny town in the Himalayan foothills. She got an overnight job working at a call center to help pay for rent and school fees.

On most days she slept only a few hours in her rented room.

"We would have to call her every morning to make sure she got to class," said the brother.

Relatives in their home village, not used to a family giving a daughter so much freedom, pestered the father to get her married. Such things are wrong, they told him. She was not behaving as a woman, as a daughter, is expected to behave.

He ignored them.

With a job as a hospital physiotherapist, her salary would have started at 12,000 to 15,000 rupees ($220 to $270) a month, already more than her father's pay.

By December, she was nearly finished. She was back in New Delhi, living at home and awaiting the results of her final exams.

It was Dec. 16 when she went to see a movie at a mall with a male friend; the attack happened on their way home.

From her hospital bed, the woman was able to give police the names of her attackers and recognized their faces in photographs. On Dec. 25, she went into a coma, and on Dec. 29, the woman they called "little daughter" died.

Hoping for justice

Now, family members say they feel varying degrees of rage and helplessness.

"Sometimes I want to kill them myself," a brother said, "but I know that would be wrong."

If convicted, five of the attackers could face death sentences. A sixth, declared a juvenile, would likely serve three years in a reform home if convicted.

"I want them to hang. They should not come out alive after what they did to my child," said the father. "This is not just about my daughter. If there is no justice in this case it will hurt the progress of girls in the whole country. Every parent will be afraid for their daughters."

The mother, too, is shaken. "I always told my children, if you study hard you can escape this poverty. All my life I believed that," she said. "Now that dream has ended. My faith has left me."

Three weeks after her daughter died, the final exam results were announced.

She had passed.

© 2014 Star Tribune