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Call for seafarer centres to urgently provide more welfare support for women

17 April 2023

Port-based welfare centres have been asked to urgently improve their services to meet the specific needs of women at sea and support industry efforts to attract and retain female crew. Deborah McPherson reports

Eight key recommendations for port welfare providers are made in the report Port-Based Welfare Needs of Women Seafarers by Professor Helen Sampson and Dr Iris Acejo at the Seafarers International Research Centre, Cardiff University with funding from The Seafarers' Charity.

Key issues identified included female seafarers' concerns about their personal safety at sea, their feelings of fear and isolation, slow promotion, less access to useful training, as well as a fundamental lack of practical facilities to support menstruation onboard and at seafarer centres.

None of the 30 women interviewed had access to an appropriate facility for the hygienic disposal of sanitary products on board cargo ships. Most could not buy sanitary products onboard.

The seafarers worked across the cargo, dredging, offshore and yachting sectors in Asia, Africa, Europe and America, and represented various ranks and ages.

The authors recognised the practical and mental health issues identified in their report has been an ongoing area of concern for women seafarers for at least 20 years, since research published by the International Labour Organisation in 2003.

The report echoes concerns identified by Nautilus members and campaigned on by the Union. For example, a recent industry report by the EU Maritime Women project supported by Nautilus recommends how the shipping industry can address these issues in order to attract more female seafarers.

In a context where companies are failing to meet some of the most basic needs of women seafarers, and where shore-based welfare services also fail them, it is reasonable to think that some talented women seafarers may be lost to the industry SIRC report: Port-Based Welfare Needs of Women Seafarers

8 recommendations for port-welfare providers

  1. urgently provide access ashore to facilities for the bulk disposal of used sanitary products
  2. make a variety of disposable and reuseable menstrual care products available either free of charge or on an 'at cost' basis
  3. staffed centres should remain in place for a much-needed source of human interaction
  4. seafarers' centres should also review the material supplies stocked, especially clothing style/size, subject matter of magazines and books, games, gifts and toiletries
  5. centres are urged to employ a 'balanced gender profile' of staff
  6. charitable organisations should consider the development of a chat forum app for women seafarers: including a general chat forum and more specialised one-to-one chat services with appropriately qualified and experienced staff. The app should also include provision for shipboard follow-up visits
  7. seafarers' centres should review the facilities provided to seafarers and ensure a balance of amenities offered for men and women
  8. provide information via chaplains and ship visitors to women seafarers about the support and facilities which are specifically targeted to their needs in port
Read the full report

Maritime charities respond

The recommendations were broadly welcomed and supported by charities that work internationally through chaplains and ship visitors at hundreds of ports worldwide.

Director of programme at The Mission to Seafarers Ben Bailey said: 'We absolutely welcome this report and support its recommendations. It highlights an issue that The Mission to Seafarers has championed, and its findings align with our initial published last year, which looked beyond the 2% at women seafarers and their lives at sea, while reflecting on our call to care.

'We are committed to serving all seafarers and are actively pursuing how we can provide appropriate support to female seafarers. We are using the experience of our female chaplains and ship visitors who support women seafarers to understand what we can do better, and [are] empowering our teams to cater for all seafarers and to tailor welfare responses which meet an individual's need.

'We are also looking at where we should increase welfare support for female crews, such as ports that receive many cruise ship calls.'

Sailors' Society also supported the recommendations in the SIRC report, said CEO Sara Baade.

'We are looking at ways we can improve our provision and support at our Southampton centre. But we have also worked hard on improving our welfare for women seafarers in other ways as they need particular support at all times,' said Ms Baade. 'We recently launched the UK all-women Peer-to-Peer Support Groups, kindly funded by the Merchant Navy Welfare Board, which give female seafarers a safe space to talk about any challenges, ask for advice and share their experiences.'

The Society hopes to be able to set up more all-women groups internationally later this year. It is also planning to launch a specific helpline service for female seafarers, staffed by women for women.

'We also take a close look at the specific issues female seafarers face in our global cadet conferences, which see more than 5,000 cadets at the start of their careers at sea join together to share their thoughts and listen to one another and a variety of specialist speakers,' said Ms Baade.

Stella Maris North of England senior area regional chaplain Anne McLaren said: 'Through our longstanding practice of ship visiting, Stella Maris has seen first-hand the many additional issues affecting female seafarers.

'Seafarers - female and male - trust and know that they can turn to Stella Maris chaplains and volunteer ship visitors when facing discrimination, bullying, health or other issues while on board ship.'

The issues raised for port welfare providers are set to be considered further by the maritime welfare sector during a webinar on Thursday 20 April at 14:00 GMT hosted in partnership by The Seafarers' Charity and the International Christian Maritime Association.


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