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Meet Padma Shri Awardee Prabhaben Shah Who spent her Life in Improving that of others

It requires more than resources to be a philanthropist. Padma Shri awardee Prabhaben Shah from Daman proved that by spending her life providing for the vulnerable. Prabhaben was 12 years old when Mahatma Gandhi in 1942, at a Congress Session in Bombay launched the Quit India Movement.
Prabhaben pledged to help the freedom struggle and slept on a jute bag for over six months after being affiliated with Bardoli’s Swaraj Ashram from an early age. She utilised charkha to manufacture khadi out of cotton in school as a symbolic gesture to reject foreign goods.
After the country gained independence from over two centuries of foreign rule, Prabhaben continued to contribute to society guided by Gandhi’s beliefs and ideology. She went on to work in a variety of social fields, including education, health, women’s empowerment, disaster assistance, and hostilities with neighbouring countries. For her contributions to society, the 92-year-old was awarded the fourth highest civilian award in the country in 2022.

Where it Started

Prabhaben moved to Bardoli with her husband with her 1.5-year-old daughter in 1960. Realising that there were no schools in the area, she opened a Gujarati-medium ‘Bal Mandir’ (primary school) for children. She educated her daughter and other neighbourhood youngsters herself at first. Eventually, she hired teachers for better education. She even started working as a clerk in a Khadi Ashram to help pay for the school and instructors’ wages.
A couple of years later, when the couple moved to Daman because of the professional transfer of her husband, she was faced with the same issue. This time, instead of starting a school herself, she decided to start a ‘Mahila Mandal’ that aided her in starting a school.
The women’s group called the Daman Mahila Mandal was established in 1963. The organization was revolutionary in itself as during that time as the women still observed the ‘purdah’ system at the time in such rural areas. To provide a safe platform for women to speak up their minds, Prabhaben held the initial meetings of the group at her home wherein she educated women about the importance of basic education and healthcare. With the help of crowdfunding channels, the Mahila Mandal set up two English and Gujarati medium schools each.

Empowering the Rural Women

As the Mahila Mandal grew in size, Prabhaben and her team took the next step and established a credit organisation to provide loans to women who wanted to start small businesses such as papad manufacturing, tailoring, or running a grocery shop.
Along with empowering women, the organisation also focused on other projects such as assisting the poor. In 1965, they made a significant contribution by opening a vegetarian canteen for patients’ families in a government hospital.

Extending help to Society

The Mahila Mandal was highly active in generating funds for the soldiers and martyrs’ families between 1965 and 1971. Prabhaben and other members crocheted sweaters and sent them to soldiers fighting on the border during the two wars. Similar cloth bank programmes were carried out in the aftermath of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy in 1984, the disastrous Kutch earthquake in 2001, and the Kerala floods in 2018 by the group.
Prabhaben has worked on a variety of issues and made a difference in the lives of many people, from children to women, over the years. Her energy and determination have earned her recognition as a social activist.