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Women and Seafaring: The dilemma of going onboard

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By Obiageli Chuma-Ugbo

WHEN the International Maritime Organisation, IMO, came up with the statistics that only two per cent of the total seafarers across the globe are women, it came as a surprise to most people especially those that are not really participants in the maritime sector. 

Some even come with the questions that a large percentage of crew members on aircraft across the world are females and that is an industry perceived to be more dangerous than maritime. In fact, some airlines are celebrating all-female crew from one destination to the other. What then is the issue? Why do we have this meagre number of female participants in the seafaring profession? The question raises a lot of dust but from experience, if one looks at maritime generally bringing the Nigerian context the first question to be asked is that how have women fared in the maritime sector.

Interestingly because of the nature of women being dedicated to every cause they pursue you find out that the women that have taken advantage of the opportunities inherent in the sector have been very successful.

Encyclopaedia of maritime

For instance, the Secretary-General of the Abuja Memorandum of Understanding on Port state and Flagstate control, Barr. Mrs Mfon Usoro is someone you cannot but talk about her strides and footprint in the African Maritime Sector. Everyone one that comes in contact with her knows that she is an encyclopaedia of maritime. You have somebody like Vicky Hastruup and the Managing Director of the Nigerian Ports Authority, Hadiza Bala Usman. They are all carving a niche for themselves in the industry.

So do we then say it is the remuneration package that has deterred more women for taking a career in seafaring? This is obviously not so because seafaring is an international career which is well regulated and payment of seafarers is mostly in foreign currencies based on internationally acceptable standards.

It, therefore, means that financially every seafarer is in a position to take the whole responsibility of the family or greatly support the spouse.

A major challenge could be lack of awareness. You cannot just jump on board without getting the necessary qualifications and when you talk of courses like nautical engineering, marine engineering and the like, you don’t find a lot of young females aspiring to be engineers not to talk of taking these specialized fields in Engineering. The problem is lack of proper education of our brilliant young females before enrolling into the higher institutions. Perhaps if Maritime Agencies take it upon themselves to address the issue by catching them young it would be of immense benefit.

Another issue is the compatibility of vessels to the female gender. It is an irony that vessels are referred to as females but are not often constructed to suit the female gender. I am of the opinion that modern vessels should have dedicated female restrooms including areas designated for females alone so that they can have their private time on board.

The issue of staying away from the family for a period of time can also be a reason for fewer female participation in the seafaring profession. However, the world is now a global village because of the advent of technology.

You can now do video calls, or virtually do everything you need to do with your immediate family because there is no difference between travelling abroad and being onboard vessels. Let us not even dare to go into robotics where they can be programmed to prepare the meals and take charge of the children’s homework.

Male dominated environment

Again, there are a lot of holidays attached to the seafaring profession so it would not take long for the next visit home.

What most people fail to discuss when they encourage females to go onboard is the issue of sexual harassment onboard. Considering the fact that it is a male-dominated environment how do we protect the female gender in this confined area?

It should not be a challenge because a lot had been done to ensure that issues of sexual harassment are dealt with in the workplace on land. If that is the case, why can’t these be applied to the vessels because it also constitutes a work environment? If appropriate sanctions are attached to erring seafarers it would go a long way to deter potential harassers.

It is heartwarming that the IMO has taken up the challenge of encouraging gender equality onboard vessels. The theme of this year’s world maritime day focused on gender equality and to bring this to the fore some member nations including Nigeria have adopted the theme for the commemoration of the day of the seafarers.

In no distant future, the numbers will swell for the benefit of all and very soon we will celebrate an all-female crew voyage on a merchant’s vessel. I am onboard with gender equality, please come and join me.

  • Obiageli works with the Public Relations Unit in NIMASA


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