September 30, 2022
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    Women to the fore in seafaring

    September 25, 2019

    Just this morning, I took a ride in a car made in Japan while listening to a song on an iPhone made in China. Remembering that I have to buy a few goods, I stopped at a supermarket on the way to the office and ticked off a few items – a can of fish made in Chile, a cheese made in Australia, a packet of pasta made in Italy and a bottle of Olive Oil from Spain.

    None of this would have been possible without shipping – and the associated international trade. International shipping transports more than 80 per cent of global trade to peoples and communities all over the world. Shipping is the most efficient and cost-effective method of international transportation for most goods; it provides a dependable, low-cost means of transporting goods globally, facilitating commerce and helping to create prosperity among nations and peoples.

    It is much more cost effective than air freight (which is sometimes essential for perishables) and also ground freight such as truck and train. Even for landlocked countries, it is often easier to import goods to the nearest coastal destination of another country and transport them by ground thereafter.

    The world relies on a safe, secure and efficient international shipping industry, which is an essential component of any programme for future sustainable green economic growth in a sustainable manner. Hence the United Nations will celebrate the World Maritime Day tomorrow (September 26).

    This year’s theme is “Women in the Maritime Community”. Today, women represent only two percent of the world’s 1.2 million seafarers and 94 percent of female seafarers are working in the cruise industry. In the recent decades, the word “seafarer” has replaced the word “seaman” in the male-dominated maritime industry. Earlier the term “seaman” was widely used to describe anyone working at sea.

    Within this historically male-dominated shipping industry, the 70-year-old International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has been making a concerted effort to help the industry move forward and support women to achieve a representation that is in keeping with twenty-first-century expectations.

    Empowering women

    IMO believes that empowering women fuels thriving economies, spurs productivity and growth, and benefits every stakeholder in the global maritime community. IMO Secretary General Kitack Lim said that the maritime industry needs more women because of the quality work they provide. He underscored that women are a very important source of human resources, which would make for safer sea travel. Through its Women in Maritime gender equality and capacity-building programme IMO encourages its Member States to enable women to train alongside men in their maritime institutes and so acquire the high-level of competence that the maritime industry demands.

    IMO supports gender equality and the empowerment of women through gender-specific fellowships; by facilitating access to high-level technical training for women in the maritime sector in developing countries; and creating the environment in which women are identified and selected for career development opportunities in maritime administrations, ports and maritime training institutes.

    IMO’s gender programme was initiated in 1988. At that time, only a few maritime training institutes opened their doors to female students. Since then, IMO’s gender and capacity-building programme has helped put in place an institutional framework to incorporate a gender dimension into IMO’s policies and procedures. This has supported access to maritime training and employment opportunities for women in the maritime sector. The Women’s International Shipping & Trading Association (WISTA) has also launched a pledge to increase diversity in maritime firms.

    This year’s theme provides an opportunity to raise awareness of the importance of gender equality, in line with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, and to highlight the important - yet under-utilized - contribution of women within the maritime sector.

    It also allows stakeholders the opportunity to work towards achieving the SDGs, particularly SDG Number 5, to foster an environment in which women are identified and selected for career development opportunities in maritime administrations, ports and maritime training institutes and to encourage more conversation for gender equality in the maritime space.

    Empowering women fuels thriving economies across the world, spurs growth and development, and benefits everyone working in the global maritime community in the drive towards safe, secure, clean and sustainable shipping.

    Here in Sri Lanka, very little has been done to promote seafaring as a profession among women. Institutions such as CINEC and the State universities must focus on this sector for women since there are many openings now for females all the way up to ship captain. School leavers and university graduates of both sexes must be encouraged to take up a career in seafaring. The cruise industry is growing at an exponential rate and many new vacancies have arisen in that sector, apart from the traditional goods transport sector.

    Heroic actions of two women seafarers have captured the imaginations many girls and women worldwide. When Captain Radhika Menon saw a boy frantically waving from a boat caught in a storm, she knew she had to act fast. Had the bridge been unmanned, the fate of seven fishermen would have been at the mercy of the sea. “The boat was barely visible through the binoculars,” says Captain Menon, recalling the sighting of a fishing vessel from onboard the oil tanker MT Sampurna Swarajya in the Bay of Bengal in June 2015.

    She immediately ordered a rescue operation, saving the lives of the seven fishermen. The success of the operation has earned her the IMO (International Maritime Organization) Award for Exceptional Bravery at Sea – a first for a woman. Not only is Captain Menon the first woman to receive the highest IMO bravery recognition, she is also the first female captain in the Indian Merchant Navy.

    International Women Seafarers Foundation (IWSF)

    In 2017, to help young women pursuing a career at sea, Captain Menon established the International Women Seafarers Foundation (IWSF). Even though today the doors of maritime training institutes are open to women, many of them still face challenges finding employment. IWSF helps young female graduates get on a path towards a career at sea. The Foundation is also supporting women while they are out at sea. Captain Menon and her IWSF colleagues consult them before they go on board, making sure they are mentally prepared for months of social isolation and being one of the few – if not the only – female in the team.

    One day, Captain Menon hopes, the attitude towards women at sea will change for the better: “With more women coming into this field, seafaring will become more open.” She acknowledges that she has seen progress since she started on her seafaring studies, with parents no longer as skeptical to sending their daughters to sea.

    The next example is migrant ship Sea-Watch 3 captain, the 31-year-old German named Carola Rackete. The ship is owned by Sea Watch, a German Charity that helps migrants in crisis. The cramped rubber dinghy was drifting, directionless, with 53 migrants on board. The boat was spotted shortly before 10.00 a.m. on June 12 by a French plane. The plane’s crew of volunteers had been scouring the Mediterranean for people in distress, and they alerted another rescue team on board a nearby charity ship, the Sea-Watch 3.

    The crew of the Sea-Watch 3 made their way towards the distressed dinghy and rescued those on board. The next closest port to the Sea-Watch 3 was on the Italian island of Lampedusa, but the Italian government had banned rescue ships bearing migrants from docking at its ports. Rackete spent two weeks in international waters, before deciding that the health of those on board was at risk. Soon after Sea-Watch 3 arrived in Lampedusa, the migrants were taken off the ship, and Rackete was arrested and warned she could face 10 years in jail. In the end, a judge sided with Rackete and with her interpretation of maritime law: as the ship’s captain, she had a duty to protect the lives of those on board. She was carrying out that duty, Judge Alessandra Vella said.

    These are just two of the inspiring stories of women have performed above and beyond their line of duty to save fellow human beings in distress. Indeed, one could even argue that women seafarers could be generally be more caring, more perceptive and more forgiving – of nature’s vagaries and human foibles. These stories will no doubt inspire more women to enter the profession, once thought of as out of bounds for women. This glass ceiling has now been broken firmly.

    The promotion of sustainable shipping and sustainable maritime development is one of the major priorities of International Maritime Organisation (IMO) in the coming years. Therefore, energy efficiency, new technology and innovation, maritime education and training, maritime security, maritime traffic management and the development of the maritime infrastructure: the development and implementation of global standards covering these and other issues will underpin IMO’s commitment to provide the institutional framework necessary for a green and sustainable global maritime transportation system. And women professionals will continue to play a major role in this transformation.

    Incidentally, IMO also separately marked the International Day of the Seafarer on June 25 and called on everyone in the maritime world to get on board with this year’s theme of gender equality.

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