What were you doing when you were 16 years old? Probably wondering why exams are so difficult or what could you do to convince your parents to let you go on a night out. At the same age, Mumbai girl Gauhrishi Narang is striving to offer a better life to the widows of deceased army jawans.
A school project has led Gauhrishi to initiative Mission A.W.E (Army Widows Empowerment), which is currently raising funds for army widows.
The seeds of the project were laid when Gauhrishi, who studies in an IB-curriculum school in Mumbai, had to choose a project for her Creativity, Action, Service (CAS) component. “I gave it a lot of thought. I considered various options, including cancer awareness and children’s welfare, but wanted to help those who the public did not readily pay attention to,” she says. She eventually zeroed in on the army, in particular the countless widows of the soldiers who lay down their lives for the nation.
The next stage of the project was reaching out to the right people. One of the first challenges was how to find the women to support. Gauhrishi received a lot of support from the Zila Sainik Parishad, and welfare officer Capt Ratnaparkhi mentored her through every stage of the project. She drove the project forward, securing approvals from her school and the Sainik Parishad at multiple levels and interacting with the widows.
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What started as an empowerment initiative has gradually transformed to a far-reaching initiative that considers the diverse needs of the widows.
Finances remain a foremost concern for many women — five of the 15 women Mission A.W.E has engaged in Maharashtra have no savings at all. “For many decades, till the Kargil war, the pension was very limited for widows,” says Gauhrishi, citing the case of Sumati Yadav who was widowed during in 1965 and lived for 51 years on a pension of Rs 4.50.
“Sometimes these women are deprived of the pension, turned away by relatives, or the money simply reduces to nothing as expenses mount. The army is generous in its support, but there is just so much it can do to help. These women have survived on their own and even raised children on wafer-thin incomes.”
Mission A.W.E works not merely to raise funds for these women, but assist them in conserving and growing their income. Gauhrishi is also involved in engaging them in livelihood-generation programmes, finding them suitable employment opportunities, and legal assistance.
As Mission A.W.E evolved through interactions with the women, it became apparent that the women needed more than just monetary support.
“Many of these women lead very lonely lives,” says Gauhrishi citing more examples. “We spoke to Surekhaben, whose husband died at war when she was pregnant. Now at 75, she would like to stay self-sufficient but is unable to find jobs. Another of our beneficiaries was a child bride whose husband died when she was 14. Having nowhere else to go, she has since lived with her sister for all these years.”
Realising that many of these women craved companionship and a more wholesome life, the next stage of Mission A.W.E hopes to engage people to adopt these widows. “We will launch a pilot project in Mumbai and around Maharashtra this March, and hope to complete the first phase of the project by the middle of the year,” says Gauhrishi.
Though it started as a project, Gauhrishi has broadened her horizons to helm a more sustained initiative. “The journey has taught us that if we want to help, we have to understand that each of these women have needs unlike each other. We must change our strategy to make a difference.”
Gauhrishi’s mother Shabeen, who worked for 26 years with brands like Citibank and Reliance before turning entrepreneur, has been a strong support on the project. “I lean towards creativity while Gauhrishi is more logical — we work in tandem with each other. She might go overseas to study soon, but she and I hope to carry on the work she has started,” Shabeen says affectionately.
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