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TBI Blogs: How a 66-Year-Old Is Bringing Hope and Changing Lives in Conflict-Ridden J&K

The Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan has severely damaged the lives of the people of the region. Meet the inspirational woman who’s made it her life’s mission to help the women and children of J&K achieve some normalcy in their lives.

Born on January 16, 1951, Mrs. Nighat Shafi exemplifies a mother figure – composed and warm, yet stern. She spent most of her life shielding her children from the militancy that hit her home state of Kashmir. But when she moved back to Srinagar from Delhi in 1995, and saw how war had torn families and children apart, her life took a new turn. She realized that the scars left by the ugly killings of the militants and the army were very deep.

At a time when hardly anyone, especially a woman, would have stepped out of their home for fear of their life, let alone for social work, Mrs. Shafi started visiting inmates at Srinagar’s sole mental institution, and tried to improve conditions there. That is when she saw that apart from the physical damage, the conflict had broken emotional lives in the valley. Since then, she has done everything possible to help women and children in Kashmir recover from the trauma of violence, and enjoy laughter, arts, and education and live fulfilling lives.

With the objective of providing a helping hand to women and children affected by the violence in the strife-torn valley, Mrs. Shafi instituted the HELP (Human Effort for Love and Peace) Foundation in 1997.

The foundation’s prime focus is to provide education and mental health counselling to women and children.

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Mrs. Nighat Shafi has been working in healthcare for over 10 years, with recent focus on providing mental health counselling to women, children, and youth – the worst victims of turmoil – as well as relief and rehabilitation to various sections of society severely challenged by physical disability and/or economic deprivation. She has received multiple awards for her contribution to societal benefit.

Mrs. Shafi runs an orphanage called Shehjaar, which means “the shade of a Chinar tree”. It is a cool, comfortable, and happy place that she has created for the conflict-affected children of the Valley. The orphanage is in Inderhama, Hazratbal, in Srinagar, home to 30 boys who have been victims of violence. She calls these boys “special children”. While they attend regular school, a range of activities are organised to help them and other children.

Drug dependence has become a painfully common way for women to deal with unusually high stress levels. Hence, Shehjaar also houses a women’s empowerment centre, a health centre, a drug de-addiction facility, and a computer centre. HELP runs several clinics and camps with psychiatrists and doctors to help identify and work with children and women.

The Foundation also runs three libraries in Srinagar and Kupwara districts.

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Under Mrs. Shafi’s guidance, HELP focussed on working in Kupwara, which was the worst militancy-affected district in the valley. She set up the Shah Anwar Memorial Secondary School in Khumeriyal village in 2000, and the HELP Foundation Model School Mawar, in Handwara in 2006. Several hurdles had to be overcome to run the school in a remote border area. Nearly half the students at the schools receive scholarships. The school building in Khumeriyal was funded by the Moulana Azad Education Foundation under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, and Action India.

Mrs. Shafi will stop at nothing to wean the next generation of Kashmiris from violence. Last year, through her guidance, HELP introduced Childline, a national helpline number for children in distress in Srinagar. Now, children call 24×7, asking for educational aid, counselling, or even relief from abuse. They are then connected to various state agencies and HELP’s resources.

HELP also conducts road shows and regular street plays to create awareness of social issues.

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Mrs. Nighat Shafi has been working for persons with disabilities from different villages, where most of the disabilities occur as a result of armed conflict and landmines and other munitions concealed under the earth. The HELP Foundation, in partnership with Handicap International, launched a massive awareness programme across the valley, especially in the frontier districts, to educate the people about how to prevent death and disability caused by landmines, ERWs, and IEDs.

Mrs. Shafi also conducts a range of initiatives to teach women skills and help them generate livelihoods. The vocational training centre focuses on activities that will make the women self-reliant, especially those who are victims of violence and have lost the wage earners of their families. Mrs. Shafi facilitates the women with embroidery and tailoring classes in Srinagar and Kupwara, and a food processing centre in Srinagar. Products are sold at their store in the city.

Mrs. Shafi has been working predominantly and extensively in rural communities of the Jammu & Kashmir region. In the politically charged environment of Kashmir, Mrs. Shafi has carved out a space for humanitarian work that is not aligned to the government or separatist groups. She also responds to natural disasters and conflict-related issues outside the purview of HELP’s traditional areas of work. She has worked for minority communities like Kashmiri Pandits, Sikhs, and other vulnerable sections of society.

Her work covers children and women from the Jammu province as well.

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The Foundation also organizes breakthrough workshops in partnership with the Management Foundation for Organisational Research and Development, to help the beneficiaries attain clear communication, interaction, organization, and performance, as well as individual growth.

Mrs. Nighat Shafi floated the idea of beautifying the famous Pratap Park, located in the heart of the Summer Capital of Srinagar, to the Ministry of R&B, Parks & Gardens to add beauty to Srinagar city through its environment-friendly beautification. The park deserved immediate attention post the September 2014 floods that ravaged most of Srinagar city, and for the aesthetics of its surroundings and the tourist industry of the Kashmir Valley. In 2015, the project was approved by the Ministry, and the extensive designing and reconstruction were started by the Foundation.

A lot of resources and care were taken to develop Pratap Park to the tastes of the public and incoming tourists. During the entire renovation, several works were carried out, including a modern subsurface drainage system, a micro irrigation system, improved illumination across the park, brick pavements, and through plantation which included perennials and annuals.

The HELP Foundation has been working with other prestigious organizations like Godfrey Phillips Limited, Project PRAGASH II, Handicap International, Action Aid, Muslim Aid, Islamic Circle of North America, MANFORD, HHRD-US, Child line India Foundation, Rajiv Gandhi Trust, Dorabji Tata Trust, Oxfam, Save the Children, Women without Borders, and the European Commission (ECHO) over many years across different developmental sectors.

Mrs. Shafi’s relentless approach has resulted in the establishment of various schools, vocational centres, and medical camps for the affected people, and also in the personalisation of societal issues by bringing affected individuals closer to the rest of society.

Further, the Foundation’s commitment to its mission has resulted in a response far beyond its expectations, both within the valley and outside.

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The HELP Foundation conducts regular theatre classes, and these children have performed plays in several cities like Kolkata, Delhi, and Chandigarh. The Foundation has also organised children’s film festivals in Srinagar and workshops on communication and individual growth, and recently organised an animation workshop. The objective behind introducing theatre in 2000 was to explore the potential and talent in the children, and to lessen their stress levels with a therapeutic perspective. This also helped eliminate the diktat which forced people to have no entertainment in the region. This exercise greatly helped in bringing normalcy to the life of the “special children”. It gave them a sense of contentment and achievement and made them feel like other children. HELP keeps organizing productions and performances every year with assistance from the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Delhi School of Drama.

Of the 667 students there, 256 are orphans. Girls and boys receive co-education from Junior KG to the Higher Secondary level. They then pursue their higher education in different cities in and out of J&K. A few are studying MBBS, Engineering, MBA, MA, Law, etc. The teachers of the schools are professionally qualified, passionate, and free and frank to express their thoughts. Students receive full scholarships for their fees, supplies, books, travel, and accommodation for specialized and higher education. Eminent personalities like Feisal Alkazi, Paro Anand, and others conduct teacher and children workshops. The faculty teach the students photography, script writing, film making, and more. Mrs. Shafi encourages interaction with elite children of Delhi, Kolkata, and other places.

She believes in bonding between different sections of society.

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Mrs. Nighat Shafi has also been supporting many children who lost their parents during the years of turmoil across the Valley. Yet, there are hundreds of children who are unable to continue their education due to financial and family constraints. The HELP Foundation aims to cover 1,000 underprivileged children from Srinagar and adjoining areas and bring them into mainstream education by providing quality education and financial assistance. Over the last decade, the Foundation has given financial assistance to over 500 orphan girls with no extended family, or destitute young women with no income, for their marriage.

The Foundation also gives out low-interest micro-finance loans to women in the valley. The total umbrella cover by the HELP Foundation – including finance by banks like J&K Bank (to 250 women) and SBI (to 100 women) – is for training, production, marketing, and other support. HELP gets support from NABARD, Save the Children, Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, as well as from friends and contacts. With a modest start in the late 90s, the benefit of HELP’s work under Mrs. Shafi’s leadership and guidance has changed the lives of thousands of women during the last 15 years.

The work of Mrs. Nighat Shafi has impacted the lives of hundreds of women and children. Many see her as a mother figure and an idol. Mrs. Shafi has striven relentlessly for years against a backdrop of bullets fired from all directions by militants and armed forces. She is courage personified.

Mrs. Nighat Shafi was honoured with the Jamnalal Bajaj Award in the category of Development and Welfare of Women and Children in 2012.

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Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation was established in 1977, in memory of Jamnalal Bajaj, a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi. The Foundation aims to serve the ideals to which he had dedicated his life and promotes Gandhian constructive activities in which he was deeply involved during his lifetime.

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