A recent report by the Seafarers’ Charity, titled ‘The port-based welfare needs of women seafarers’, shed light on the welfare needs of women working on cargo ships, and emphasized that women need to feel confident and secure to express their concerns and fears.
iting several cases where female seafarers had reported sexual harassment, the report underpinned that women can be more fearful and more isolated than their male colleagues onboard, resulting in greater feelings of stress.
Women seafarers in the research faced specific issues which cause them to feel alienated in a very male space where they feel they don’t belong. ’’The very act of self-isolation causes women seafarers to experience an even more solitary existence at sea and reveals a greater need for welfare support for women from outside of the immediate crew and management structure.’’, the report states.
Specifically, concerning female seafarers, incidents of sexual harassment are an unfortunately common occurrence, capable of causing significant emotional distress. Instances of harassment primarily encompass unwelcome physical contact, such as inappropriate touching and kissing of female seafarers’ hands, faces, and intimate areas. Such behavior has been reported not only from higher-ranking officers but also frequently emerges within interactions among peers and subordinates.
Women have described facing a considerable dilemma in instances where such behaviors arose. They wished to prevent the reoccurrence of abhorrent behaviors, but they were often reluctant to complain about incidents either because they felt sorry for the perpetrators and for their families who depended on them working on board, or because they feared that they would not be taken seriously, would not be listened to, or would actually face disciplinary action themselves
Women onboard raise their voice: key considerations
The report cited witnesses from female seafarers to highlight challenges in working onboard, underscoring the need for organizations to foster a supportive and safe environment for reporting, where individuals feel empowered and protected when speaking up about unacceptable behavior.
For instance, one account within the report narrates a woman’s decision, during her younger years, to refrain from reporting a colleague’s clear transgression because of concerns about his family.
Another individual cited several factors that dissuaded her from lodging complaints against the inappropriate conduct displayed by certain coworkers and superiors. These factors encompassed a belief that raising concerns would yield no results, a perception that voicing grievances signifies weakness, and a fear of facing violent or even life-threatening retaliation. In another instance, an individual recounted an unpleasant encounter with a recognized ‘bully.’ Despite her clear disgust at the events, she chose not to file a complaint against the seafarer in question, influenced by his earnest plea for her silence.
From the above examples, several conclusions can be drawn about the challenges and dynamics involved in reporting instances of misconduct or unacceptable behavior in the workplace:
- Fear of repercussions: Employees may fear retaliation or negative consequences, including violence, if they report misconduct. This fear can be a significant barrier to reporting incidents.
- Concern for the well-being of others: Individuals might choose not to report misconduct due to concerns about the personal or professional consequences for the offender or their family. This decision can be influenced by a sense of empathy or a desire to avoid disrupting the personal life of the perpetrator.
- Perceived futility of reporting: Some employees may believe that reporting an incident will not yield any tangible results or that it might not lead to any meaningful action being taken. This perception can stem from a lack of trust in the reporting process or in the efficacy of the organization’s response to such complaints.
- Social stigma and stereotypes: There might be a prevailing perception that reporting misconduct is a sign of weakness or that it could lead to negative labeling or discrimination against the person reporting the incident. This perception can discourage individuals from speaking up about inappropriate behavior.
- Emotional manipulation and guilt: Instances where an offender pleads with the victim not to report the misconduct can create a sense of guilt or emotional pressure, leading the victim to choose not to file a complaint. This manipulation can further complicate the reporting process and deter individuals from seeking appropriate action.
Furthermore, lack of support from colleagues could leave women feeling extremely isolated, upset and highly vulnerable. As Seafarers’ Charity explains in the report, sometimes the issues were complicated by the fact that it was a senior officer perpetrating the abusive behaviour. ‘’In such cases, women would sometimes try to speak up at the time of the incident, but they would rarely report it. In some cases, the initial harm that was caused by the perpetrator of abuse on board was amplified as a result of the unhelpful responses of other colleagues.’’
Hopefully, there are many cases though, in which the Association has found that seafarers were supportive of colleagues who were being harassed on board and some went to great lengths to help them out.
Reporting is vital to combat sexual harassment
In general, two main patterns of response to harassment have been observed: at times, female seafarers file formal complaints, but more commonly, many opt to distance themselves from the issue altogether, particularly in situations involving alcohol. However, the drawback to this approach is that it exacts a toll on female seafarers, preventing their active participation in social gatherings due to the potential risk of encountering unpleasant incidents.
Concluding, it is of outmost importance to have a clear policy on how to report such cases. For example, the USCG has implemented new reporting requirements for incidents of harassment, sexual harassment, or sexual assault. It supports anonymous reporting through an app and conducts thorough and impartial investigations, when a report is received.
Cultivating awareness, implementing robust policies and protocols, and providing comprehensive education and training to all individuals aboard the vessel—be the crew members, officers, or passengers—form the fundamental pillars for addressing the issue of underreported incidents at sea. Specific training is required that encompasses critical themes, including the definition of sexual harassment and abuse, methods for recognizing and reporting such behaviors, and strategies for providing an appropriate response to affected individuals.