Cover Story: Female sexual abuse at sea – How many are suffering in silence?

More female seafarers than ever are reporting cases of sexual harassment or assault but many are still suffering in silence for fears they will be branded troublemakers and will not be believed.

That’s according to the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN) which provides a 24-hour helpline to seafarers needing advice and support.

Its Project Manager Caitlin Vaughan told SMI how one of the most recent cases involved a female Third Officer being sexually assaulted in her cabin by the Captain.

“The Captain would not give any warning before showing up at her cabin and would not use the intercom, which worried her. He just knocked on the door, and there was also unwanted touching,” said Ms Vaughan.

At least two of the most recent cases being dealt with by ISWAN involved seafarers who were the only females onboard their vessels and those affected are often juniors.

Out of all cases, around half happen on commercial vessels and the other half on cruise ships – one of the recent cruise ship cases involved a hotel worker who was assaulted by a passenger.

“It wasn’t dealt with so well,” said Ms Vaughan. “The passenger wasn’t ejected and the seafarer was offered to be transferred to another section of the ship but she would possibly still have to pass or see the passenger who assaulted her, so there was no real conclusion to the case, and the case is still open.”

In 2016 ISWAN’s SeafarerHelp helpline received calls from 66 female seafarers and dealt with eight cases of ‘bullying and abuse’ – five of which were serious sexual harassment or assault. In 2015 there were 48 calls and four cases of bullying/abuse while in 2014 there were just 35 calls and just one claim of bullying/abuse involving women.

More often than not though, female victims are not reporting incidents, according to research published by ISWAN in 2015 and conducted along with a few other organisations on the health of women seafarers.

The Women Seafarers’ Health and Welfare Survey found that 17% of respondents – all female seafarers – were currently experiencing sexual harassment onboard.

“What was interesting is that we did a pilot survey to hone our questions before we did the main study and there were far more junior rankings that responded to that. That came out as about 50% for that question,” said Ms Vaughan.

She told SMI that in a recent case a woman who reported an issue to ISWAN had been put in touch with a more senior ranking female onboard another vessel, as per company policy, only to be told by the senior that she would just have to put up with it as ‘I went through it and this is what happens’.

“I think this is quite a common piece of advice,” said Ms Vaughan.

“In some ways, yes, there’s a lot of covering up but there’s also a lot of people just putting up with it.

“Women have to work so hard in this industry just to get as far as they do, so then to risk it by being ‘the troublemaker’ is a really big issue. There are still companies who are reluctant to take women on – there’s a bit of an overall view that women are troublemakers and someone might accidentally sexually harass them, but the reality is that it takes so much for a woman to report this.”

Not only are the victims of sexual harassment and assault often junior, they are being abused and harassed by, in some cases, the Captain as mentioned previously.

“It is usually their direct senior,” said Ms Vaughan. “Even if it’s not a concern about losing their job, it’s just general fear.”

Sometimes the victims genuinely do not want to report it or do not want ISWAN to deal with it in a practical way because they are too worried about how it will be dealt with so an important role for the ISWAN team is to offer emotional support.

Those that do want to report it are recommended by ISWAN to follow their company’s policy and the right process. However, a big problem is that seafarers do not always know what the company policy is. She urged companies to be responsible and make sure they were familiar with the guidance out there as well as constantly monitoring and reviewing their policies and processes.

“On cruise ships there is often a strong policy and there’s a very clear process, but on commercial ships it’s more vague and I think that’s a big problem,” said Ms Vaughan.

Last year, the International Chamber of Shipping published ‘Guidance on eliminating shipboard harassment and bullying’. This was born from best practice guidelines first launched by the UK Chamber of Shipping and Nautilus some eight or nine years ago and followed a few years later by the European Social Dialogue, which enabled the guidelines to be shared with European members.  A few years ago, the ICS started working with the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) on joint guidance on harassment which led to its publishing last year.

“We took on everything from the UK and European guidance and also started to think about issues such as social media and online bullying and all the things that were not an issue eight to 10 years ago,” said Natalie Shaw, Director Employment Affairs at ICS.

“We’ve also tried to factor in about how to make sure that companies now, when they take people onboard, have policies and procedures in place to handle it, if there is an allegation of bullying and harassment.”

It was also agreed two years ago that there would be reference to the guidelines in the guideline part of the MLC (Maritime and Labour Convention 2006). The only trouble with this, said Ms Shaw, was that not every country had ratified the MLC. “That means it will only apply to seafarers onboard vessels which have ratified the MLC,” she said.

When looking at ISWAN’s statistics of reported female sexual harassment and abuse , Ms Shaw said that realistically the type of people involved were not traditional seafarers but hotel and catering staff now recognised as seafarers under MLC.

“The number of cases of formal complaints made by female seafarers who are traditional seafarers in traditional seafaring roles is very, very low,” said Ms Shaw. “However, though the actual figures are negligible, one case, as everyone knows, is one case too many. I don’t think it’s a question of it being a big problem in terms of numbers because clearly it is not but for the one or two people who are affected, it is a concern and that is the reason we put the guidance materials out there in the first place.”

ISWAN also has a strong relationship with Nautilus and other unions and recommends that anyone reporting a case of harassment or abuse notifies their union if they are a member, so they too can provide support and guidance.

Ms Vaughan said although the five cases of serious sexual harassment and/or abuse in 2016 sounds like a small number, each case took around three months to deal with and in some cases emotional support was needed on most days.

“ISWAN is only a small team of 10 but works round the clock to offer help and support every day of the year.”

Despite the gloomy picture, however, Ms Vaughan said she was optimistic that more women would come into the industry, particularly in the Western world where we will see more recruitment of people in technology.

“I do have optimism that more women will be employed onboard and that the number of bullying and abuse cases will fall,” she said.

Ms Shaw agreed saying: “I think women are safer when there is more than one woman onboard.” 

To see the ICS guidelines visit