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 moving bus in New Delhi 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. The time for the two younger boys would come later, when their sister had a toehold in life.
“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, gracious even in his loss, handing steel cups of tea to a reporter.
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 did not 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.
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 six 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, gesturing around the tiny bedroom that passes for a living room when guests arrive.
However, he was able to give his children something else.
“My own father could not educate me very much. He had no means. I wanted different things for my children,” he said.
He struggled for years, working as a security guard and making parts for washing machines. Three years ago, he got a job as a baggage handler at the New Delhi airport. Since then he has worked 16 hours a day, six days a week for about 12,000 rupees (US$220) a month.
“We were struggling, but life was good,” said the father, a heavyset man with graying hair in his mid-50s.
The kids fought, as siblings do, but also loved spending time together. After dinner they would crowd into the room where they slept or watched Bigg Boss, a reality show, and laugh at the contestants locked inside a house for several months.