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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Being Here: Counseling the Sexually Abused

"Six months," says Martina Vandenberg, when you ask when she is leaving.


She radiates decisiveness, as if everything is going -- and will continue to go -- according to schedule.


"Of course," she adds, laughing, "I said six months six months ago."


Sitting in the latest of a series of temporary residences -- a high-ceilinged, book-lined sublet in central Moscow -- Vandenberg doesn't seem too worked up about the delay. On the other side of her departure date are long-term plans for a career in international human rights law. But at 25, the Californian activist has found herself snagged in a job and a country that she describes, in one breath, as "addictive."


Vandenberg's brainchild, Moscow's new Sexual Assault Recovery Center, began operating in March. Using several years of experience as a sexual assault counselor in the United States and Britain, she founded Russia's first hot line for women who have been sexually assaulted, and plans to expand the center into a shelter for battered women.


After studying military and civil law at Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship, Vandenberg had signed on to allocate food aid to Russia with the Department of Agriculture at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.


Then, a year later, she walked out of her job.


While she doled out funds at the embassy, Vandenburg said she retained her focus on the sexual assault issue and found herself drawn back into activism.


During the months she had spent in Moscow, all her free time had gone into planning meetings. She would come home from her day job every night to sit on her apartment floor for hours with prospective counselors. After training each counselor for 55 hours, and hashing out issues of consent that were new to the volunteers, the hot line finally went into effect this spring.All of which, understandably, is making it difficult for her to leave. This is a pivotal time for Russian feminists, she said.


"The thing that's exciting here now is that there's so much going on," she said. Watching grass-roots women's groups proliferate is like witnessing a revolution in thought, she adds. "In women's issues, this is like '91."


As a student of Russian culture, Vandenberg said she has struggled with the idea of applying Western standards of behavior to a vastly different society. Even the self-selecting group of volunteers immediately zeroed in on provokatsiya -- what women were doing or wearing to provoke an assault.


On issues like this, Vandenberg's cultural sensitivity -- honed during her upbringing in a Dutch-American household -- comes up against the principles that guide Western assault counseling. Early on in the planning process, Vandenberg decided never to counsel Russian women herself, and the training materials she brought from California sometimes needed more than translation. Still, she said, interpersonal behavior comes down to a bottom line.


"Your job is to listen to what these women have to say," Vandenberg said. "There's nothing cross-cultural about that."