Every year, the Day of the Seafarer marks an occasion of pride and importance in the maritime world as all across the globe, people express their gratitude to the seafarers for their contribution to the economic and civil structure of the society.
The IMO first started celebrating Day of the Seafarer in 2011, as a way to acknowledge the fact that almost everything in our daily lives is affected directly or indirectly by sea transport. Recognizing this contribution, understanding the risks they take and perils they face is important for us, to completely understand the huge role seafarers play in our culture and society.
Celebrated on June 25 every year, the Day of the Seafarer usually addresses the common problems plaguing the industry that need to be brought into the limelight, thereby paving the road for a better, more aware population.
Over the past few years, the International Maritime Organization has been diligently campaigning to promote increased awareness related to the seafarers’ wellbeing and health. This year, continuing in the same vein, the theme for Day of the Seafarer 2019 is gender equality which is expected to have a strong and far-reaching resonance.
Here, on the occasion of the upcoming Day of the Seafarer 2019, we discuss the state of affairs related to women in the industry, the way their paths have been forged and the various obstacles they have had to overcome to create a place for themselves in the maritime world. The theme for this event corresponds to the theme of women empowerment, which is chosen for World Maritime Day.
Women Seafarers in the Industry – Past, Present, and Future
There are over 1.5 lac active seafarers today in India, employed, engaged, or working on a ship, out of which 4700 are women seafarers. This last decade has seen radical developments in bringing women seafarers to the forefront and overcoming a lot of stigmas usually attached to having them onboard.
The maritime community is moving away from a regressive mentality and accepting women as an important and integral part of the shipping world. Here is a look at how the work of women has progressed in shipping, over the years.
Shipping has predominantly been a male-dominant industry. The first hint of change came when some maritime educational institutes opened their doors to female students in 1988. The IMO forged an ambitious global program called Integration of Women in the Maritime Sector and the first framework to ensure their access to training and employment opportunities was born.
This led to the inclusion of some brave young girls into the maritime institutes, who went on to create many landmarks by becoming the first Lady Chief Engineers, Lady Captains, and Lady Marine Pilots of the country. They had to overcome many challenges along the way, as they were just one or two in their classes, facing oppression and narrow-minded mentality at every step of the way. Despite many setbacks, these strong women fought for their places and earned them through sheer will and determination.
To pave the way for future generations of women seafarers, Capt. Radhika Menon, the first woman in the world to receive the International Award for Exceptional Bravery at Sea, Ms. Suneeti Bala, India’s first Lady Chief Engineer, and Ms. Sharvani Mishra came together in 2017 and established the International Women Seafarers Foundation – a platform to connect the seafaring women across the globe and share experiences to help the women in the industry.
In addition, there are several Women in Maritime Associations (WIMAs) across the world, even in developing countries such as Africa, Latin and South America, and Egypt that addresses the problems of gender discrimination and ensures that women in the maritime world are treated with honour and respect.
Due to these ceaseless efforts, the future of women in the shipping industry looks quite bright. There is greater awareness about the opportunities in maritime, encouragement for women to actively participate in the community, and support to help them grow and prove themselves. It would not be amiss to say that in another decade or so, women will be active leaders in the maritime industry, standing shoulder to shoulder with their male counterparts!
Challenges for Women Seafarers
Keeping the need for gender equality in mind, the IMO has aptly chosen the theme for this World Maritime Day as Empowering Women in the Maritime Industry and that for Day of the Seafarer as Being On Board with Gender Equality. However, although the journey towards this goal has begun, there are still quite a few challenges that women seafarers have to face.
Conservative mentality of society
There is an inherent bias in society that sailing is still a ‘man’s’ job. As a result, families are reluctant to let their daughters pursue a career in maritime, preferring a conventional path for them. The first step to creating gender equality amongst the maritime community is to overcome this strong prejudice and understand that women are as capable as men when it comes to performing any duties on board the ships.
Mental and sexual harassment
This is a by-product of the conservative mentality we have seen above. The non-acceptance of women turns to outright bullying and harassment under extreme situations, where women are treated poorly and insensitively.
Changing the mindset, making people aware of the fact that women can possess the same skillset as men are the primary requirements. In addition, governments across the world need to create and implement laws for maritime that ensure the safety and protection of women on the seas.
Harsh working conditions
Living on board a ship for long periods, from months to years, is physically and mentally taxing. The hours are long and often, in less-developed nations, even the basic amenities, such as sanitary disposal methods are not available. This creates a lot of difficulty for women on the ship, posing a major hurdle towards incorporating more women in the industry.
Difficulty in maintaining work-life balance
As seafarers, women have to stay away from home for long stretches of time, which makes it very hard to maintain a proper work-life balance. In India, there is still the perception that a woman is expected to handle all the responsibilities of her home and family, in addition to the demands of her career. While this is somewhat manageable for other professions, seafaring is an exception. This deters a lot of young women from taking up a career in shipping.
Limited access to education
Maritime institutes have opened their doors to female cadets but the number is still small. Not all marine colleges are as accepting, nor do they ensure company placements that are equally broad-minded.
Ms. Sharvani Mishra recollected her experience about her placement days, where she was denied the opportunity of an interview by the recruiting company, despite the fact that she was among the top five cadets in her batch, just because she was a girl! This lack of liberal educational institutes and recruiting companies presents a hurdle for women seafarers.
Lack of leadership opportunities
Women on board ships have to work twice as hard as men to prove their capability and skills because they are held to much higher standards. Convincing one’s crewmates about the fact that they are equally serious about the tasks they are assigned and can take up responsibility equally well, takes twice the amount of effort for women, as compared to their male counterparts, says Chief Engineer Rupali Joshi.
To eliminate these challenges and encourage the active participation of women seafarers, the IMO has adopted the sustainable development goal of gender equality in the maritime industry. Let us see how it aligns with the theme for this Day of the Seafarer.
Sustainable Development Goals for Gender Equality and the Day of the Seafarer
The fifth Sustainable Development Goal, as mentioned by the UN, promotes gender equality. It aims to end all forms of discrimination against women and girls everywhere and nowhere is this goal more important than in a male-dominant industry like the maritime sector.
IMO is addressing the concerns of gender discrimination by implementing the Integration of Women in Maritime Sector programme along with the ILO. Leading shipping companies like WISTA International, BP Shipping, Nautilus International and more are promoting gender equality among the marine workforce. In the UK, over 110 companies and trade unions have signed a Charter to promote the inclusion of more women in the maritime workforce
The theme for this year – empowering women in the maritime industry – is especially significant here, as it captures the essence of the IMO’s efforts in bringing gender equality into the spotlight. Working in tandem with SDG 5, IMO is working on the principles of Training-Visibility-Recognition to support the participation of women in both shore- and sea-based jobs.
Some of the initiatives started by the IMO to fulfill the goals of the SDG of gender equality include:
- Seven regional Maritime Associations for women in the Pacific, Caribbean, Africa, Arab States, Asia, and Latin America to develop training opportunities as per the requirements of the region
- Gender-specific fellowships to encourage higher technical education for women seafarers
- Participation in economic, political decision making, to address crucial maritime challenges
- Leadership opportunities for all female alumni of IMO’s World Maritime University and International Maritime Law Institute to reinforce the impact of female role models while recruiting new female cadets
On a national level, the efforts of the maritime industry are no less. India is one of the top nations to have a high percentage of female senior managers in the maritime sector. The IWSF is creating awareness among the new generation of women seafarers, helping them deal with problems and issues they face in the industry.
In addition, leading boat manufacturers and shipping companies, such as SHM Shipcare, are increasing the percentage of female employees in their companies, to provide equal growth opportunities for women in the sector.
The Journey Ahead
Achieving gender equality in a sector where only 3% of the workforce is female is a Herculean task. However, with bold and forward-thinking maritime administrations, this can translate into a future where men and women work on an equal footing of merit.
Having skilled women on board ships can help solve the shortage of qualified workers and hence take the industry closer to safe, clean, secure, and sustainable shipping. It is important to remember, effective maritime transport is the key to economic infrastructure development. Empowering women in the maritime industry is sure to spur overall growth and development of the maritime community and hence prove to be an asset for the future of global shipping!
What are your thoughts on gender equality in the maritime industry? Any anecdotes you would like to share? Drop a comment to let us know!
Cover image: The better India