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Woman Seafarers: Turning against the tide

8 August 2016
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I recently attended a Women in Maritime conference and I thought it appropriate with August being Women’s Month, to touch on some of the journeys shared, the lessons learned, the enormous strides made in the industry and how much farther women still have to travel (or should that be, sail?).

Two years ago in London I met female master mariners for the first time and I was gobsmacked, my reaction being: “I cannot believe you guys drive oil tankers for a living!”. Along with that feeling of awe was an immense sense of pride in these women who decided to dedicate themselves to careers at sea, a difficult decision for any person, but more so bearing in mind the challenges that women face.

Traditionally, shipping has always been male-dominated. Recent statistics indicate that women represent only 1-2% of the world’s 1.25 million seafarers. While that percentage is small, the number of women turning to the sea for employment opportunities is growing.

I was therefore excited to meet several women at the conference who reaffirmed my belief that a woman’s place is wherever she decides it to be and that can include at the helm of a ship: Pinky Zungu is Durban’s first black female harbour master and Captain Thembela Taboshe is one of three black women to have qualified this year as commercial cargo vessel master mariners. The journey I found most touching was that of Blondie Jobela, an alumni of Lawhill Maritime Centre in Simon’s Town. Ms Jobela, who hails from Tsomo in the Eastern Cape, only saw the sea for the first time at age 11. Four years later, she enrolled at Lawhill (thanks to sponsors Safmarine and Safcor Panalpina). After completing her engineering studies at Cape University of Technology, she joined Royal Caribbean International and is now Third Engineer. Hearing her speak of her passion for her career gave me goosebumps!

There is a critical shortage of women in the maritime industry and according to Bjorn Kjerfve, president of the World Maritime University: “Ignoring half the population for jobs in the maritime industry is like playing poker with half a deck of cards,”. Women are an underutilized source of maritime talent.

The hurdles women have to overcome to secure employment in the industry are as diverse as financial constraints, and cultural and socio – economic challenges. For those seeking a career at sea, sadly, the odds are stacked even higher:  Whilst numerous training opportunities exist, gaining practical experience by serving time at sea is difficult as many vessels are not equipped to accommodate women. And there are some countries that will not even allow women to enter the industry.

Once employment is secured, there are more hurdles: a study commissioned by the International Labour Organisation reports: “… though making inroads on the sea lanes, women seafarers face not only the general challenges of weather, hard work and rough seas, but also inordinate amounts of discrimination, sexual harassment and parental disapproval as well as often being relegated low-paying jobs with limited opportunities for promotion”.  Add to this degrading and patronising comments, scepticism about their strength and ability to perform their work functions, and being tested and pushed more than their male colleagues.

The International Transport Workers Federation has called upon all employers, the International Labour Organisation and trade unions to prioritise the following issues identified as crucial for women seafarers: reducing gender stereotypes; provision of sanitary items on board, access to confidential medical advice and contraception, consistent and improved approach to maternity benefits and the development of sexual harassment policies and appropriate training, including within cadet training and education.

The International Maritime Organisation has a specific programme based on addressing the imbalance: the Integration of Women in the Maritime Sector (IWMS), which includes strengthening national and regional capacities through gender-specific fellowships, facilitating access to high-level technical training for women in developing countries; and facilitating the identification and selection of women for career development opportunities in maritime administrations, ports and maritime training institutes. The role and impact of women in the development of Africa’s maritime sector is to receive a further boost following a preliminary agreement between the Association of African Maritime Administrations and the Association of Women in the Maritime Sector in Eastern and Southern Africa to formalize co-operation in pursuance of programmes to empower women.

My inspiration in writing this article is to draw attention to this unique area of employment for the girl child. If I needed a role model to promote the cause, who better than Captain Radhika Menon, Master of the oil products tanker “Sampurna Swarajya”, who is to receive the 2016 IMO Award for Exceptional Bravery at Sea for her role in the dramatic rescue of seven fishermen from a sinking boat in stormy seas. She is the first female captain in the Indian Merchant Navy and will be the first female to receive this prestigious award.

*This article first appeared in the Sunday Tribune on 7 August 2016.

Article by Anisa Govender, senior associate in our Shipping Practice.