The LexGaze Weekly - WE THE PEOPLE

Equality Beyond Land Borders: Todays Women, Tomorrows Seafarers

Arijit Sanyal

Issue 15 | September 27, 2020

“substantial, effective change needs time, collaboration and patience.”

Despina Panayiotou

(President, WISTA)


The maritime industry is changing, but opportunities have not come as easily for women as they have for men. Recent data suggest that women constitute a meagre 2% of the entire workforce at sea, most being associated with the cruise industry [ITF]. Shipping, which has primarily been a male-oriented industry has witnessed campaigns and initiatives by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) for over three decades, in hope to bridge the gap which has not materialised because of serious impediments. Stereotypes and problems related to acceptance have been one of the most serious impediments, not only towards the realisation of a more inclusive maritime industry but also to SDG 5, which deals with women empowerment [WISTA International]. An analysis of the global efforts shows how small-scale changes have been undermined while pursuing the goals of a complete overhaul. This might seem unrealistic considering the working traditions that have been followed at sea for centuries.


IMOS’ initiatives in pursuance of SDGs has definitely sent a message and portrayed the industry as one that is ready to welcome women. However, traditional attitudes of seamen have made it difficult for women to work and sustain themselves onboard for a desirable period [WISTA International]. The industry's perspective at large has been to undermine women who are equally capable of holding positions of responsibilities irrespective of the place. This has been proved over the years by making other land-based sectors and institutions more inclusive [IMLI]. In addition to the history of unwelcoming attitude, absence of career-mapping by regulators has slowed down the inclusion process and domains where women can be employed without unnecessary hassles, have largely remained under the control of men. This includes marine engineering, port responsibilities, medical officers, inspection squads of port states etc. Though European port states have come together to address these issues and have had favourable results in terms of women recruits and fellowships, problems have remained with respect to issues of women’s health on board, which requires special attention owing to the anatomical differences.


As far as Indian Maritime industry is concerned, the Government of India (GOI) notified its willingness and readiness to induct women seafarers, by releasing guidelines for ship managing companies, on the eve of World Maritime Day in 2019 [DG, Shipping]. To improve the current ratio of the pool of seafarers, these guidelines have introduced a relaxation period of 2 years for all potential women seafarers who wish to enrol for maritime training. Furthermore, while keeping women’s health as one of their core concerns, guidelines have drawn sufficient provisions for having women medical practitioners onboard, apart from having provisions of sick leave, maternity care, leave and re-joining after a medical check-up after a period of relaxation. Furthermore, in a bid to bring the work culture at parity with other industries, the guidelines allow pregnant seafarers with regulated working hours at shore-based facilities. Moreover, the guidelines have satisfactorily addressed issues such as gender sensitisation and complaints related to sexual harassment, to obviate the psychological barriers women might face while considering employment far from land. The guidelines allow shipping authorities to have a separate expeditious redressal system onboard which affords reasonable job security to the complainant while having utmost sincerity towards privacy issues.


“It’s not about your gender, it’s about what you can do”

Kitack Lim

(Secretary General, IMO)


Though the IMO, in association with IMLI and WISTA, has been relentlessly working for making the maritime industry more inclusive, the lack of collective and coordinated efforts has hampered these prospects. Reference must be made to the Israeli maritime Institute, which has, in association with IMO, offered various fellowships and benefits to aspiring women seafarers from across the globe. Apart from increasing women’s participation in the entire process, this also broke stereotypes regarding the industry. IMO’s institutional guidelines which have illuminated the roadmap for the future will be futile if maritime nations fail to address this issue collectively. In furtherance of the said goals, Le Havre port Authority, France has devised a fortnight-long training program for prospective women seafarers from developing countries to improve their ability to comprehend problems at sea. Training sessions such as these do not make them trained seafarers within a short span but prepare them mentally for the fathomless sea. Changes such as these do not occur overnight and require dedication, awareness building and collective policymaking. To see this as a country-specific problem would be to undermine the problem of gender biases which has unfortunately clung onto civilised human society and hindered progress not just for women, but for humanity. Bounteous evidence suggests that investing in women not just helps them overcome the biases against them, but lifts entire communities by furthering sustained economic growth [IMF]. All it takes is the willingness to change the incongruous outlook.

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