Calling time on abuse of female seafarers

Too much of a female seafarer’s life is out of sight

By the Revd Paul Trathen

Seafarers work and live on board their ships, many miles away from land, regular networks and ‘sightlines’, which most of us take for granted, and hidden between aluminium and steel walls.

At our best, we human beings ‘see one another’, but for seafarers, it can be trickier than that. For female seafarers, in some ways it is trickier still.

Women make up less than 2% of the global workforce at sea. More visible, one might suppose, as they stand out from the men. But that is not the case. Rather, all too often they live a hidden life, with few or no peers to ‘see’ what is really going on. And when they suffer abuse, that abuse can go unseen.

The Mission to Seafarers is committed to ‘seeing those at sea’, and we see the abuse experienced by female seafarers, we speak with and for those experiencing these hidden horrors, and we call time on it.

The Mission recently published an important report: ‘Beyond the 2% – Women Seafarers and their Lives as Sea: Reflecting on Our Call to Care’ (2022). We also welcome a report commissioned by The Seafarers’ Charity, and conducted by researchers from the Seafarers International Research Centre, at Cardiff University: ‘The port-based welfare needs of women seafarers’ (2023).

Sexual harassment and intimidation sit alongside the common stresses of the seafaring life for many women on ships, where they are made to feel unwelcome by some shipboard colleagues or are actively antagonised or targeted with hostility by others.

These add to the stresses of loneliness, and the imbalance of physical and mental health, common to many who work and live at sea.

Responding to the call

As a result of the findings of our study, The Mission to Seafarers has commit- ted new resources and a new focus to our caring work. In 2024, the Mission will be appointing and equipping three specialist female chaplains to be placed in ports around the world, to be on the frontline to see and care for female seafarers. They will be placed in ports where significant numbers of cruise ships dock, as the numbers of women working in that sector are typically higher than the across-the-board 2% so they will have time and space to regularly see, hear and keep in touch with many women in their moments of respite from sailing.

Trained in counselling and psychology, they will empower women to challenge and confront abuse where it happens.

They will also be strong advocates for women seafarers, challenging abusive cultures and practices on board ships that need to change. They will pioneer and make use of digital chaplaincy, keeping in supportive touch with women as they travel across the oceans.

Further, these specialist chaplains will be a resource to other chaplains and ship visitors in their region of the world, enabling other chaplains and ship visitors to both learn from, and draw upon, that expertise.

The Mission will also work with others in the maritime welfare world to produce new resources – printed, taught and online – to help female seafarers experiencing abuse and other difficulties. These resources will be both for them, and for those seeking to care and advocate for them, signposting support and information in different port locations, as well as at sea.

And, at our Mission to Seafarers Centres throughout the world, we will be thinking about how to make our welcome and places of peace more focussed on the particular needs of women.

The Revd Paul Trathen is port development manager at The Mission to Seafarers.