A woman from Daman was awarded the Padma Shri when she was 92 years old. Prabhaben Shah was committed to feeding and clothing the poor throughout her life.
When Mahatma Gandhi began the Quit India Movement at a Congress Session in Mumbai in 1942, Prabhaben Shah from Daman was 12 years old. Prabhaben pledged a promise to help to the liberation fight 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.
Prabhaben continued to contribute to society after India gained independence, guided by Gandhi’s beliefs and ideas. She went on to work in a variety of social fields, including education, health, women’s empowerment, disaster assistance, and hostilities with neighbouring nations. In January 2022, she received India’s fourth-highest civilian honor, the Padma Shri, for her altruistic and tireless efforts.
Prabhaben adds, “I am really happy and thrilled to accept the distinguished award for my contributions.” Despite the fact that she retired in the late 1990s, she continues to mentor the next generation and provide advice on a variety of topics.
She will celebrate her 93rd birthday on February 20th, but her spirits are as high as they were when she founded the Vapi district playgroup in the 1960s. Prabhaben became a change agent after adopting Gandhi’s adage, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” She dropped out of school in class 7 and married Subhash, who worked for the Gujarat Electricity Board.
In 1960, there was no school, and Prabha wished for her children to graduate. As a result, she established a Gujarati-medium ‘Bal Mandir’ (primary school) for kids. So, rather than founding a school from scratch, I opted to establish a Mahila Mandal and then launch the school via them.
She explains, “We formally established the Daman Mahila Mandal and began activities in 1963.” It was not as simple as Prabha makes it seem to form a women’s organisation.
The environment was rural, and the time period was the 1960s, when women still adhered to the purdah code and did not venture out. The earliest gatherings were held at her home so that women could freely express themselves, and Prabhaben taught them on basic education and healthcare through these dialogues.
The Mahila Mandal created two English and Gujarati medium schools through crowdsourcing. 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 enterprises such as papad manufacturing, tailoring, or running a grocery shop. Along with empowering women, the organisation also focused on other initiatives such as assisting the poor. in the year 1965, they made a significant contribution by opening a vegetarian canteen for patients’ family in a government hospital.
Prabhaben reminisces, “There were no businesses, motels, or restaurants in the immediate vicinity of the hospital, and people from different regions would visit. The stranded family had limited alternatives, so we created a cafeteria with the support of hospital workers, which is still operational today.”
The Mahila Mandal was highly active in generating funds for the troops 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. After seeing the independence movement, this moment seemed unreal for Prabhaben. She says that the people of India didn’t beg for independence so that they might suffer at the hands of the neighbors.
Similar cloth bank efforts were carried out by Prabhaben and Prabhaben’s colleagues following the Bhopal Gas Tragedy in 1984, the disastrous Kutch earthquake in 2001, and the Kerala floods in 2018. She adds, “Whenever a crisis occurs, we donate, embroider, and purchase garments for people, the elderly, and children.”
Prabhaben Shah has worked on a variety of topics and made a difference in the lives of many people, from children to women, throughout the years. Her energy and determination have earned her recognition as a social activist. She claims the path was difficult since she had to manage the Mahila Mandal on a shoestring budget at first.