Plight of Women in the Maritime Industry

Pragya Dixit and Richi Jain

Student Editor - Tharun Rana | Junior Editor - Shreya Choudhary | Senior Editor - Rajnandini Muduli


Reshma Nilofer Naha, India’s first and only marine pilot is very vocal of what she feels are the pitfalls. She craves acceptance. However hard a woman tries to blend in and work as much as or mostly harder than the men, she is never accepted. Can never blend in. Is always subject to quick judgments.


One might come off as naive if they were to deny the fact that women face adversities and get exploited at their workplaces. It has become so tremendously normalized that many just shrug it off and say, “What can we do?” Maritime industry is no stranger to it. Maritime and shipping industry has been traditionally recognized as one of the male-dominated sectors. The representation of women in the sector is so meagre that it goes unnoticed. There are many reasons behind this poor representation. For example:-

a) Recognition of women as a weak gender who cannot handle the adversaries of the sea.

b) The nature of the job which forces you to leave your home for months thus making it harder for them to fulfil the socially stigmatized responsibilities of theirs etc.

c) Patriarchal ideas and age-old stereotypes, to this day, influence our policies and opportunities. Its vitality and importance is so much heightened that we focus so little on these earlier mentioned problems.

The Maritime sector has been facing the wrath of these factors for a long time now. Out of 1.2 million seafarers in the world, only 2% of them are women. Out of that 2%, 94% of these women are mainly engaged in the cruise industry. While this less- than- impressive number raises concerns in our minds, what is worth mentioning is back in 1998 when International Maritime Organization (IMO) conducted a survey, it had been reported that there were approximately 2% women in the Maritime sector, out of which only 0.12% were actual female deck officers and engineers and were working onboard on cargo vessels.

The huge wage gap in the sector is not a myth and monumental, close to 47% in 2017, according to a study conducted by HR Consulting. Very few women are seen in leadership roles and women get lower-ranking jobs despite having a higher education. If they are a part of an onboard crew they face challenges like sexual, verbal and physical harassment. When a woman is courageous and ambitious enough to cross all such social, professional and industrial barriers, the impending threat and harm to her body and dignity acts as a major deterrent forcing her to give up. The woman has to perform above average to earn her place, whereas her male counterpart has to fulfil the bare minimum. Thus, placing a foothold in this industry is nothing but an arduous as well as emotionally and physically challenging task for a woman. All of this contributes in discouraging women from choosing it as a future career option.

From the discussion above, it is evident that among the many reasons behind the lack of representation, exploitation and challenging performance of the women in the sector, sexual harassment is a major concern.

However, what here is so appalling, is that there is little to no change in representation of women over two decades. This raises pertinent questions- whether local and international bodies are concerned about it, or working for the same and if they are, where is the implementation?

Various Conventions and their measures

Sexual harassment is not only a disorderly conduct, but it is also an infringement of legal rights of a human being. The awareness of legal rights in relation to sexual harassment at the workplace has started gaining attention recently and can be traced back to as early as the 1970s. There is no specific law which deals with the problems of sexual harassment in the Maritime industry. However, there are certain conventions and institutional bodies worldwide which attempt to address these concerns.

Every year, 24th September is celebrated as International Maritime Day. In the year 2019, recognizing the need of impending threat to women identity, safety and participation, International Maritime Organization (“IMO”) organized the theme for the same as “Empowering women in the Maritime Industry”.

CEDAW - Convention on Elimination of discrimination against women

Adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly, CEDAW does not mention sexual harassment in particular. In 1992, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, established by UN provided recommendation 19. By way of this recommendation, Article 17 of CEDAW convention stipulated that the discrimination against women as defined under Article 1 includes “any act of physical, mental or sexual harm or suffering, threats of such acts, coercion and other deprivations of liberty, against a woman because she is a woman.”

ILO - International Labour Organization

Following CEDAW’s footsteps, ILO took the initiative and provided directions as to the form Sexual Harassment may take in a workplace.

a. ‘Quid Pro Quo, when a job benefit such as a pay rise, a promotion, or even continued employment is made conditional on the victim acceding to demands to engage in some form of sexual behaviour; or

b. A hostile working environment in which the conduct creates conditions that are intimidating or humiliating for the victim.

IMO - International Maritime Organization

IMO is under an obligation to prevent such gender disparities. Initiated in 1988, its gender development program has been able to achieve certain goals but is still far behind in achieving the intended result.

Various actions which IMO intends to take are as follows -

First, IMO through its women in maritime programme flagship under the slogan of Training-Visibility-Recognition, has been trying to increase women participation in the field of both Offshore and sea going posts.

Second, under the UN's 2030’s agenda of sustainable development goals, it is trying to promote goal no. 5 –Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”.

Apart from Major Conventions, various New Guidelines were developed by the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) called Guidance on Eliminating Shipboard Harassment and Bullying’. ITF General Secretary, Steve Cotton, said: “Bullying and harassment in the workplace are unacceptable wherever they happen – but they have a particular horror at sea, where those affected may be isolated and alone, hundreds of miles from home. Until now there has been a lack of practical common-sense guidelines and we’re delighted that we have been able to work side by side with the ICS to address this need.”

A second set of amendments were added to the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) on 8th January, 2019 related to various health and safety matters. To the list of matters which should be considered for investigation in a health and safety context, there are added ‘problems arising from harassment and bullying‘.

In late January 2018, Women's International Shipping & Trading Association (WISTA), International Seafarers' Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN) and Anglo-Eastern Maritime Training Centre, released a new booklet to create gender sensitization and to maintain gender diversity onboard merchant ships.

In India, we have no specific legislation under Maritime law, dealing with sexual harassment. Before 1991, section 9(2) of the Navy Act, 1957, which specified that women are not eligible for appointment or enrolment in the Navy was in force. The section, fortunately, clarifies that the Union Government may by notification make exceptions to this bar on women. On 9th October, 1991, the Union Government issued a notification making women ‘eligible for appointment as officers’ in three cadres/branches, i.e. Logistics, Law and Education.

In March 2020, while delivering a Supreme Court Judgment, Justice DY Chandrachud observed that the Indian Navy suffers from age-old and deeply rooted stereotypes about the role of women. The apex court held that female Naval officers have the right to Permanent Commission (PC). The court held this discrimination violates their fundamental rights.

Problem of Sexual Harassment in the Maritime Industry

Sanjam Gupta, Founder of Maritime SheEO in a piece, provides with a detailed account of sexual harassment on board. These include personal letters she received to interviews she conducted. In one particular letter, a 2nd officer describes that when she rejected her captain’s inappropriate advances, he grew more violent. Another instance is of a female cadet who got sexually assaulted by the captain and kept silent for 12 years until at a conference she spoke up. Advancing on the same sentiment, a polling by Opinium Research has revealed that 58% of women who have experienced sexual harassment did not report it to their company.

One of the biggest deterrents preventing women from joining this sector is the ill-treatment and toxic work environment. In a survey conducted in 2014, by a joint initiative of the International Maritime Health Association (IMHA), International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN), International Transport Workers’ Federation and Seafarers Hospital Society (SHS), on women seafarers health and welfare, revealed that 17% of women seafarers had reported cases of sexual harassment, one time or other in their career time, the number is quite high. The more shocking revelation is that when another such pilot survey was done, nearly half of the women said that they had faced such harassment in their lifetime. The major reason behind the change in the numbers was that in the former official survey only female officials at higher supervisory levels were considered, but in the pilot survey women working at lower positions were also included. Thus, these surveys stand witness to the speculation that women who are at junior levels are much more prone to such harassments. Women are forced in situations of quid pro quo where in order to sustain their jobs or to develop in their career they have to sometimes compromise to such kind of sexual behaviour. They are forced to stay in a hostile working environment which is constantly intimidating and humiliating them. These findings show that how this hostile working environment acts as a threat to their overall representation. More than often in the worst-case scenario, when women, in the initial years of their career, get abused, they do not want to continue with their jobs, or they endure it. Both of these options are not ideal.

The shipping industry is international to its core. That also applies posing the perennial question of which legal jurisdiction is responsible for ensuring a work environment free from harassment and discrimination, aboard. Framing of these sensitive laws is highly contextual. It depends on the gender norms, the treatment of the various sections, the tolerance, etc. This becomes a problem in multi-cultural ships, where perception of sexual harassment may change. All these should be factored in while framing laws and guidelines, with women’s welfare being the only commonality. What further adds to this already stupendous issue is, the alienation. The tremendous spread of the oceans and seas makes the female seafarers feel isolated, frequently causing them to discern that they are away from and outside the protection of legitimate legal frameworks. Onsite female officers should be well equipped to handle any complaint and have enough authority to make necessary decisions. The need of the hour is either creating set standards related to sexual harassment on board and further to create a culture of equality. A safe space should be created. This can possibly happen if the representation of women is increased in the industry.


Dr Kitada, talking about leadership opportunities, opined that “Awareness has been created, but statistically the maritime industry hasn’t made much progress in the past 25 years,” she points out.

As we see women are a minority in the maritime sector, there is little or no protection to their rights. There is no need to explain the fact that with only 23000 women seafarers worldwide, women are at a great disadvantage. The society and gender norms all work against them. What we as a society need is education. Education which starts from the root level. Education which diminishes the belief that a person’s skill set is in any way related to their gender. Such learning and ‘unlearning’ should be embedded in institutions as well as cadet training. Strong female role models would further accelerate more young women choosing this as a career. For this, females should be able to hold superior leadership roles, without any threat or hindrance. Even though we have all of these policies and guidelines along with our criminal laws and precedents, there’s hardly change in the picture. Women are being ridiculed, bullied and underpaid for taking up a non-traditional career. Awareness is not enough now, intolerance should be. Zero tolerance policies on board should be implemented. Compulsory action should be taken instead of letting that file collect dust. For far too long we have ignored the elephant in the room, i.e. ill-treatment of women. If we as a society wish to achieve our full potential and encourage gender equality, we have to give an equal footing to all the sections of society. By protecting the female sector and simultaneously facilitating their growth, we achieve unprecedented growth.

The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Tathya or its members.

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