WMU Contributes to WOMESA Webinar on Gender-based Violence and the Effects of COVID-19 on the Maritime Sector

On 15 December, the Women in the Maritime Sector in Eastern and Southern Africa (WOMESA) hosted a webinar focused on the impact of gender based violence on women and the effects of the 2nd wave of Covid-19 in the maritime sector.

In her remarks, Dr Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry, President of the World Maritime University (WMU), noted that in 2019, the International Labour Conference adopted the Violence and Harassment Convention (No. 190). Prior to that, international conventions addressing the issue include the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the 1993 Declaration of the Elimination of Violence against Women, the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (PFA), the 2003 Maputo Protocol – Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, the 2014 Istanbul Convention, and the 2015 Paris Agreement. 

Regarding maritime specifically, the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 as amended (MLC, 2006), is the most gender sensitive international legal instrument in the maritime field. While serving as the first woman Director of the International Labour Standards Department of the International Labour Organization, Dr Doumbia-Henry was responsible for developing the ILO Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 and remained responsible for it until she joined WMU. She noted that the entire text took account of gender sensitive language utilizing the word “seafarer” throughout. The objective of the Convention is to promote opportunities for men and women to obtain decent and productive work in conditions of freedom, equity, security, and human dignity. 

Article III of the MLC, 2006, requires member States to abide in their maritime labour systems to the fundamental rights at work, including the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation. Dr Doumbia-Henry pointed out that although prohibition of sex discrimination in maritime employment is critical, it is only a first step in a long way towards a healthy work environment. The 2016 amendments to the MLC, 2006, provide further details on how to tackle gender-based violence by referring to the latest version of the Guidance on eliminating shipboard harassment and bullying, jointly published by the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF). The 2016 amendments emphasize the responsibility of States and shipowners to ensure a safe and healthy work environment on board for crew. 

Dr Doumbia-Henry noted that research conducted at WMU on women seafarers and sexual harassment shows, the effectiveness of such policies and programmes might get compromised by the multi-cultural background of the crew that might not share the same understanding of what constitutes gender-based violence. For example, sexual overtures and disparaging remarks about workers’ competence based on their gender are still considered to be acceptable behavior by some cultures, and thus their laws and regulations do not respond to this type of discrimination in a serious and consistent manner. 

Addressing the impact of COVID-19 on seafarers from a gender lens, Dr Doumbia-Henry referred to the recent WMU Alumni Webinar entitled “Understanding the Effects of COVID-19 on Seafarers.” The majority of respondents to the various surveys discussed reported serious impacts of the pandemic on crew changes and ship-shore interactions. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected seafarers differently in terms of their employment contracts. Those who have permanent contracts were less affected compared to those with temporary or voyage contracts who are the majority of seafarers. 

The majority of women seafarers work on cruise ships and ferries where tourism and marine transportation are vital for business continuity. During the COVID-19 pandemic, those sectors lost 70-80% of their revenues, compared to the beginning of 2020, and many seafarers on those ships have lost their employment. Therefore, percentage-wise, women seafarers have been more affected than male seafarers, because of their higher representation on cruise and ferry ships. There is currently no data reflecting gender implication of the effects of COVID-19 on seafarers, but Dr Doumbia-Henry cited a sad example of a young Ukranian female seafarer who committed a suicide in the Port of Rotterdam when she found that her repatriation home was postponed.

Dr Doumbia-Henry highlighted that there are an estimated 400,000 seafarers still awaiting to disembark from their ships, despite IMO designating seafarers as “key workers” who contribute to the development of the blue economy. She emphasized the importance of combating workplace violence, including gender-based violence at sea to promote a safe and healthy work environment on board ships. 

“The time is now to call out all forms of gender discrimination, including gender-based violence. A  zero-tolerance policy for gender-based violence is now needed more than ever before. As women, we have a right to a world of work that should be free from violence and harassment, including gender based violence and harassment,” said Dr Doumbia-Henry.

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