Delhi gang-rape victim: a student with high hopes

Hospital staff carry the gang-rape victim's body to the police morgue vehicle at Mount Elizabeth hospital.

NEW DELHI - The 23-year-old rape victim whose assault and death shook India and captured the attention of the world was the daughter of an airport baggage handler who was studying hard and harbouring big ambitions, like millions of Indians her age.

She enrolled four years ago on a physiotherapy course in Dehradun, a city in the foothills of the Himalayas, and was in the capital doing an internship in a hospital after completing her final exams.

Her father, a baggage handler at New Delhi's international airport who earned US$200 (S$255) a month, had sold ancestral land to pay for her studies in the hope of producing the family's first professional.

To help with the costs and give her financial independence - for clothes, eating out and the fateful cinema trip that would lead to her death - she worked nights at an outsourcing firm and gave private tuition to school children.

"She slept for three hours and we felt that she would faint in the classroom but she refused to rest," said Sheen Kaur, one of her roommates at the Sai Institute of Paramedical and Allied Sciences in Dehradun.

In a cruel twist, her final marks were published shortly after her death in a Singapore hospital on December 29, showing she had achieved first-class exam results.

Originally from Balia village in the impoverished northern state of Uttar Pradesh, the girl's family - including two younger brothers - lives in a downtrodden part of the capital inhabited mostly by labourers.

During her course, friends say she transformed from a shy teenager to an active participant in college and helped organise social events and choreographed dances.

In New Delhi, she would often meet up with the male IT worker five years her senior with whom she went to the cinema on the night of the attack that shook India.

Some friends say they planned to marry, but he has largely declined to speak about the relationship, stating that he "liked her and enjoyed being with her". The victim's father has denied suggestions the couple were set to wed.

The male companion has been the main prosecution witness in the criminal trials which saw a teenager on Saturday given the maximum sentence of three years in a correctional facility.

A juveniles' court found the teenager, who was 17 at the time of the attack, guilty of rape and murder. The sentence takes into account the time he has already spent in custody.

The companion witnessed the brutal gang-rape after being beaten up by the attackers, and he helped identify the culprits in a police line-up then testified against them in the south Delhi court.

He said he admired his dead friend's courage and ability to smile even in the worst situations.

"She had the magic to make everyone happy. Even when she was in the hospital, she asked me to wear a new shirt and said I looked very smart," he told AFP in an interview in January this year.

Despite the attention and relentless media coverage of the case, journalists in India have refrained from naming the dead woman in accordance with the law, using the pseudonym "Nirbhaya" ("fearless") instead.

"My daughter is dead but she fought till the very end. She is an inspiration for millions of other women who are fighting against sex crimes," her mother told AFP at the family house.

In March, the US posthumously honoured her with the International Women of Courage award.

"Her bravery inspired millions of men and women to come together with a simple message: 'No more'," US Secretary of State John Kerry told a ceremony in Washington.

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