For women who have been trafficked and abused, who are overcoming addiction, or struggling under the weight of poverty – or all of the above, there is place for rest, healing, and care. Beauty for Ashes is a home in India for women to reimagine and rebuild their lives with dignity and love. It is a place they call home.
Photos by Cate Hartwell Griffin
Words by Denise Poon
Thousands of young women arrive each year to the Indian city where Beauty for Ashes is located. They often come without any secure connections to anchor them; no family, friends, or means to support themselves, and are easy targets for gender-based exploitation. Beauty for Ashes, a home for women, offers safety for those fleeing from situations such as sex trafficking and domestic violence.
The girls head out to church, part of their weekly routine. Beauty for Ashes was born out of a local church’s desire to see young women who have been abused receive care and healing. The women are folded into the wider church community, which also provides opportunities for discipleship and spiritual input. However, they are not expected to become Christians simply because they live at Beauty for Ashes.
The women of Beauty for Ashes walk to church. Currently every one of the young women recognizes the existence of God, in varying degrees, and the Beauty for Ashes staff members encourage the women to get to know and experience Jesus personally.
Beauty for Ashes has welcomed women who have nowhere else to turn: women fleeing prostitution, struggling with drug addiction, seeking refuge from poverty, and more. Some stay for only a handful of days, others, over a year. The team invests in every woman, regardless of the length of stay.
The day starts early for the girls, who all share in chores. Together the staff and women keep daily life at Beauty for Ashes up and running. The girls attend school as well; though many of the young women have had their education disrupted by the circumstances of the past, Beauty for Ashes provides options for each woman to complete her education and obtain formal certification.
One of Beauty for Ashes’ commitments is to find suitable vocational training programs for the women according to their abilities and dreams. The goal is to empower these women to participate in work they enjoy and find meaningful, as well as support themselves with dignity.
Each young woman has ideas for her future; some want to pursue careers in areas such as law, nursing, and social work. “My dream is to help others in whatever way possible,” Lakshmi said. “If that means being a doctor or a social worker, I just want a profession that allows me to help others."
It is Lakshmi's turn to prepare chai today, which is served at 5:00 pm everyday – no afternoon would be complete without tea and biscuits.
After a day of school, chores, and other activities, the girls are glad for a chance to gather together to relax.
There are 12 girls living at Beauty for Ashes, the most the home can accommodate. Although reliable statistics about the incidence of physical, sexual and economic violence against women and girls in India do not exist, it is generally recognised to be a widespread problem (see, for example, this article). Given the great need for places of refuge for girls, the team hopes to move to larger premises in the future.
Irene is one of two full-time caregivers living with the girls at Beauty for Ashes. The caregivers meet one-on-one with the girls to talk with them about how they are doing and to offer encouragement.
The women are encouraged build relationships within the community. Here, the girls play with children from another NGO in the neighborhood. The Beauty for Ashes team hopes to establish more peer-to-peer support groups, so that the young women can reach out and share experiences with other young women and create a network of awareness and support.
Along with growing as individuals, continuing their education, and learning practical life skills, the young women also give back to the community. Several of the girls volunteer for local charities, including a home for children with HIV/AIDS.
One staff member comments, “No matter how much pain and brokenness they have gone through, with God, there is 'beauty for ashes' and they can be agents of change in a nation that has seen much ill treatment of women.”
The young ladies take much joy in artistic pursuits. They create dance routines, sing together, and do arts and crafts.
The young women’s creative endeavors are vital to both their communal and individual growth. "I have changed a lot. I have learned a lot about God,” said Trisha, adding, “I have learned about cooking and dancing. I have progressed in life."
The girls gather in a circle and braid each other’s hair. This simple act of care underlies the deeper kinship in the home. "I feel I am part of a family,” Aarohi said.
Irene shares a moment of laughter with the girls. The Beauty for Ashes staff hopes to add more caregivers to their team.
The girls practice some photography. After abuse, drug addictions, and other experiences that have disrupted the normal flow of life, these young women need much encouragement and care in order to be equipped for a life different from what they have known.
Two of the women prepare dinner together as part of their daily chores. One of the most life-giving aspects of Beauty for Ashes is the sisterhood fostered between the girls. "I have found happiness playing with my sisters here. They are very important to me," Shreya said.
The utter normalcy of preparing chapati – the dusting of flour on countertops and the smell of dough frying in oil – is a small miracle in light of the abuse the women at Beauty for Ashes have suffered in their pasts.
Liz is the other caregiver at Beauty for Ashes, and has helped cultivate the sense of community and safety in the home. “I have learned about God and so many good things," Aarohi said. "The most important thing I have found here is be able to draw close to God and to be with him. I want to look at others through the eye of Jesus and bring that love in others also."