Prayers, vigil as India remembers gang-rape victim

NEW DELHI - With vigils and prayers, India on Sunday marked the first anniversary of the death of a student savagely gang-raped on a bus - a tragedy that sparked nationwide protests against the treatment of women.

The 23-year-old physiotherapy student died on December 29 last year, nearly two weeks after being attacked by a gang of six men on a moving bus as she returned home from the cinema in New Delhi with a male companion.

The attack and her subsequent death shook the country, shone a global spotlight on India's treatment of women and unleashed seething public anger about sexual violence and harassment of women.

The victim's family held a religious ceremony in their ancestral village in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, away from the constant media attention they have faced since the attack, her brother said.

"We held prayers in memory of our sister," the brother, who cannot be named for legal reasons, told AFP.

"The local villagers have been coming to our home since the morning and giving their wishes and strength to us," said the brother, who earlier told AFP the family wanted to remember her "in a quiet way, away from all the glare".

The family are following traditional Hindu rituals, with a prayer ceremony and symbolic offerings to their ancestors, which are believed to bring peace to those who have died.

The student, who was repeatedly assaulted with an iron rod during her ordeal, has been praised for her determination to report her attackers to the police before she died of her injuries.

Although the brother welcomed reforms to police and judicial systems since his sister's death, he said still more changes were needed, including a further shift in society's attitudes towards women.

"We do think that society as a whole still needs to change its mindset and even women should become more careful about their safety," he said.

The angry and sometimes violent protests against the attack jolted India's parliament, which this year passed tougher laws against rapists and other sexual offenders.

Rape cases reported daily across the country

Four of her attackers were convicted and given the death penalty in September after the case was fast-tracked, while a juvenile was sentenced to a detention centre.

The sixth man died in prison in March in an apparent suicide.

Women's groups agree that improvements have been made to slow, inefficient and sometimes corrupt policing and judicial systems, and these changes have encouraged more victims to report sex crimes.

But a steady stream of new cases of rape continues to be reported daily in the Indian press. An ambulance driver allegedly raped a 10-year-old girl after he drove her sick mother to hospital in the central state of Chhattisgarh, the Press Trust of India reported.

Police have charged the driver over the incident in Kanker district on December 23, the news agency reported on Saturday.

In the capital, a small group of school students and workers gathered on Sunday at Jantar Mantar, a protest site in the city centre where a makeshift memorial has been set up for the victim.

They placed small lamps, candles and flowers around the memorial during a vigil, one of several expected to take place across the city.

They urged lawmakers to push ahead with reforms aimed at reducing crimes against women, including speeding up the justice system.

"We want the Indian government to set fixed time-frames for police investigations, court trials and ultimately punishment for the accused," said Vikas Tyagi, a call-centre worker.

"A lot more still needs to be done to ensure that India becomes an absolute rape-free nation," Akash Kumar, a school student from the nearby satellite town of Gurgaon, told AFP.