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Saving Russia's Only Rape Crisis Centre  by Emma Carter
Saving Russia's Only Rape Crisis Centre

“Syostry” means sisters in Russian. It is also the name of the country’s only rape crisis centre, located in the capital, Moscow. Known commonly by its English name, Sisters has been on the brink of closure since last year.

Sisters was founded in 1994 by a group of women who were alarmed by the lack of active social supports and dialogue about sexual violence in their country. The organization picked up where psychologist Natalia Gaidarenko, who worked alone for three years counselling victims, left off. Sisters provides immediate assistance and ongoing psychological support to survivors of sexual violence. In the former U.S.S.R., where an estimated 22 percent of women experience some form of sexual assault, opening up sexual topics for discussion was challenging.

“It wasn’t just the theme of sexual violence that was closed,” recalls Sisters director Maria Mokhova. “The whole theme of human sexuality was closed.”

The Russian population, at 142 million, includes a female population of close
to 77 million. While guidelines set out by Women Against Violence Europe (WAVE) recommend one crisis centre for every 50,000 female citizens and one rape crisis centre for every 200,000 women, Russia has just one crisis centre dedicated to rape victims.

For the last 21 years, Sisters’ main service has been the operation of a hotline to provide immediate psychological support to survivors of sexual assault and to help to guide them through a labyrinth of social services, police contacts and litigation services. Sisters clients are generally women; however, anyone who has experienced sexual violence can obtain services free of charge. There are 19 counselling centres throughout Russia to provide support to those experiencing all forms of crisis. However, staff at the general centres are not necessarily specifically trained to counsel survivors of sexual assault.

So what happens in a country where millions of women cannot access specialists trained to assist victims of sexual violence? Advocates, experts and researchers come together to work for change. In 1993, the organization ANNA was founded to raise awareness about the extent of violence against women in Russia, with a particular focus on domestic assault. ANNA coordinates Russia’s National Centre for the Prevention of Violence, whose purpose is to provide information to the Russian government on violence
against women.

In its alternative report to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of
Discrimination Against Women in 2010, ANNA stated that the Russian government has “no means of providing timely, professional help to victims.”
ANNA’s website succinctly states: “Despite the work done to combat violence against women in Russia over the last 20 years, a systemic approach at the government level does not exist.”

The impact of the lack of services is being felt at the grassroots, where reliable resources and trustworthy service providers are viewed as a pivotal fi rst step to help victims and reduce sexual assault. Ekaterina Bakhrenkova, a fundraiser
at Sisters, believes that more outreach is needed to provide sexual assault services to vastly underserviced rural villages and regions, where sexual assault resources are scarce or non-existent.

“One year ago, Sisters went online after 20 years of off-line work and communication. Now it is clear that we must develop Internet projects and
consulting,” Bakhrenkova says.

Sisters also provides face-to-face individual and group consultation and advocacy services during investigative and legal proceedings. “We support
survivors during all investigation processes, and trial if they decide to go that way,” explains Mokhova.

Official statistics on sexual violence in Russia are unreliable. However, according to ANNA’s UN report, “in 2008, departments of the ministry of the interior registered 5,398 crimes qualifi ed as ‘rape’ or ‘attempted rape.’” Sisters’ hotline receives about 3,000 calls per year. Violence against women in Russia is widespread and under-reported. Mokhova estimates that only about 12 percent of sexual assault victims go to police and about five percent of perpetrators face trial.

In 2008, a representative of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs said that violence against women in the form of domestic abuse occurred in one form or another in every fourth family. An estimated 14,000 Russian women are killed by their male partners each year, according to the representative. Like victims of gender-based domestic abuse, victims of sexual assault are often humiliated, ignored, pressured to recant, or forced to drop charges.

This starts with initial contact with police and continues throughout the process. Instances of doctors refusing to examine patients and of police routinely refusing to arrest accused assailants are common. As occurs in all countries, a culture of victim-blaming prevails in Russia, one perpetuated
by culture, the legal system and in media.

“Now we are noticing a rise in masculinity, discrimination of women, the intrusion of ‘religious values,’” said Mokhova.

According to ANNA’s 2015 alternative report to the UN, “Gender equality and women’s human rights issues are rejected and considered to be the matters of alien ideology and foreign influence both by the state and the general public.”

These disturbing trends confi rm Sisters’ role as vital and underscore a need for greater exposure for the organization in the media. Women in Russia have few equality laws to protect them, and the overall status of women is considered worse than it was a decade ago. In 2004 the country’s commission on women, which operated under the leadership of the deputy minister of the Russian Federation, was suspended. The country’s national action plan for the advancement of women ended in 2005.

“We make the issue visible in media, television, radio, newspapers, social media. We never discuss personal cases. We discuss the problem in a general way so that it becomes something which affects everybody,” Mokhova explains.

In a country where sex education in schools is muzzled, Sisters has bravely undertaken public education initiatives aimed at preventing sexual violence, increasing awareness about sexual consent, and empowering individuals to set personal boundaries. It also provides professional training within the legal and medical system, including training for police, medical and psychological professionals, lawyers and judges.

In spite of the growing need to help victims of sexual assault and to punish perpetrators, there are few signs that the load will lighten for Sisters. At the end of 2014, Sisters faced a debt of several thousand dollars, and the centre was looking at shutting down.

“No one was being paid,” explained Maria Mokhova, “and only a few of us were still working.”

Today, the centre’s remaining five employees are paid, on average, $300US per month. In addition to their long hours at Sisters, some staff members hold other jobs to support themselves. A core team of approximately 25 volunteers helps to sustain the centre.

During the past 12 months, there have been signs to encourage a tentative optimism. Responding to Sisters’ cry for help, an online fundraising initiative raised $24,000US.

“It was wonderful news,” Bakhrenkova says. However, with basic monthly operating costs of $2,597US, the centre is still running a monthly deficit of approximately $500US. “The worst part,” says Mokhova, “is the instability. We cannot plan our activity. We cannot progress.”

Sisters was once supported with the aid of international charities, but in today’s Russia international donor markets are disappearing. There is also an increased pressure for NGOs not to accept foreign donations. Increasingly, Russian authorities have labelled organizations that are in some way involved in activity considered “political” to be “foreign agents.”

“I’m ready to become a ‘foreign agent,’” Mokhova says, “though it would be very hurtful. What I am doing, I am doing in Russia. I am doing it for Russia.”
After an article was published recently in the Moscow Times about Sisters’
financial troubles, a group of foreigners living and working in Moscow banded together with Russian supporters to start a campaign with a goal of international and grassroots networking.

“When I was told that Russia had only one sexual assault crisis centre and that its future was in jeopardy, I was shocked. It is something unimaginable in my country,” a 33-year-old Canadian donor said.

The group of foreigners hopes to attract international attention and the group has local and international events planned to support Sisters’ campaign.

“We have people interested in working on events or gathering donations in England, Canada and Spain, as well as Moscow,” says Stephen, a British
foreign national who is coordinating a spring cycling event. “Access to these services is a matter of basic human rights.”

In spite of continued economic challenges and cultural pressure to remain silent, Mokhova remains determined.

“We see that the future is just impossible without Sisters, as we are doing something nobody does,” she says.

Her dream is shared by women around the world: “I wish for a future without
sexual violence and no need for our centre, but it is not now, unfortunately.” 

Support the campaign for Sisters at