Growing up in the 1980s, Jasmin Labarda knew early on that being an Asian, Filipino, and a woman almost certainly guaranteed that life would not be smooth sailing for her if she chose a career away from the biasness of the Asian society and male-dominated world.
But like the few and proud women who took the plunge just like her, she proved over the past 21 years that she could deal with the rough waters and even storms that frequently confronted the men and women who dare to choose a life at sea.
Now 38 years old and one of the very few female ship captains in the world, Jasmin Labarda can now chuckle as she recalled her experiences being the only woman in several ships full of men since she first stepped on a tanker when she was 17.
Using my identity against me
Jasmin told Maritime Fairtrade that the challenges included “lack of respect, lack of broad-mindedness and understanding of others, of a minority or anyone outside of their circle. I’m Asian, Filipina, and a woman. These are just some of the many superficial aspects that others have seen and use to intimidate me.”
“I dealt with everything by choosing to respond in a way that is both beneficial for me and to others too. It was not easy and I didn’t have anyone to turn to during those times. It was a trial and error, a ‘left-or-right-oh-no-not-this-way’ approach,” she said in Manila as she awaits her new ship posting.
“But I handled it not with human strength alone but rather from a divine perspective as well. Since that was thrown at me, I will return it with compassion and kindness, I kept reminding myself,” she said.
Certainly, there were numerous moments and people who were simply unkind, and played mind games to make her stop believing and achieving her dreams. However, after some time, she came to a game-changing realization.
“I just have to reflect and think why they were like that or why they said that. I realized that what people say was not about me, but really about them,” she said.
“If they were really that scared that others could do something, it was because they were scared themselves and did not believe in themselves. It was only after so much hardship that I realized all of this,” she smiled.
“They were not used to it. It was their first time seeing a female officer. And some of them hated working with women. So, it was very challenging.
“When I was very young, there had always been noises: ‘Oh, she’s a girl. She should act this way. She’s not going anywhere.’ I did not listen to these noises. The loudest sound I heard was my dream. The goal that I wanted to achieve. My love for my family.”
Jasmin’s father was also a seafarer, a pumpman who sailed mostly on tankers, but it was really her mother who inspired her, even pushing her to take a course that would alter her life.
“My initial [college course] choice was engineering so I took entrance exams in various schools. At that time, I was considering chemical, electrical, computer, and science because I like chemistry and physics,” she recalled.
But one day in 1999, her mother saw a poster announcing a scholarship program being offered by the Maritime Academy of Asia and the Pacific (MAAP). Jasmin’s mother encouraged her to apply.
“I told her I don’t like the sea and I might be short for the compulsory height requirement. But on the other hand, I liked that it was a semi-military training,” Jasmin recalled.
But mommy dearest would have none of Jasmin’s excuses and told her that the family could not fully fund her education and the MAAP scholarship would be a boon for them.
The captain remembered that on the day she took the MAAP examination, her mother was hospitalized and she found herself going to the hospital chapel but not knowing what to pray for.
“I went to the hospital’s chapel to pray because if I didn’t pass the (MAAP) exam, I would face my mother’s wrath. She might even say that I did not give my best,” she remembered with a laugh. “But if I pass, how about my dream of studying engineering?”
Later, Jasmin realized that if she pursued engineering as she had planned, her parents might not be able to continue funding her studies and she would have an even harder time giving her parents and two siblings a better life. She chose the sea.
Jasmin still vividly remembers the time her mother phoned her father, who was on board a ship at that time, to inform him that their eldest daughter had passed the exam. She overheard her father said “But can your daughter do it?” Her mother replied “Of course, I raised her.”
“I think that was one of the best gifts and moments that I took with me. I had no idea what I was about to venture into, but I trusted my mother’s wisdom, and her trust and confidence in me, and that was all I needed,” said Jasmin with a smile.
A fulfilling new adventure
Jasmin graduated from MAAP in 2003 and later became the first and only Filipino woman to earn a Master Mariner and Dynamic Positioning (DP) license in Asia, a feat that not many of her male colleagues had achieved.
But if several of her shipmates wanted and expected her to fail, there were also those who saw how hard Jasmin worked and how competent she was in her job.
“The captain was due to disembark and his reliever could not join on time so he asked me if I would like to take the post as he believed that I’m capable of doing the job and that I had worked hard for it and deserved it,” Jasmin narrated.
“I got my captain’s license in 2010 at 27 years old. At that time, I was only starting in a new company in the oil and gas industry, in offshore types of vessels,” she said. Only two years before, Jasmin had just been promoted to senior chief officer at age 25.
“I had to reinvent and innovate, for me not only to survive but more so to thrive in this industry,” she said, recalling the time when all the officers at the bridge were men.
“At that time for these levels, there were no Filipinos, Asians nor women. Almost everyone around me back then thought that Filipinos were only good to be second officers.”
Supporting women empowerment
This kind of discrimination and rejection she received from her male counterparts motivated Jasmin to participate in AMOSUP Women, a group under the Associated Marine Officers and Seafarers Union of the Philippines that fosters women empowerment in the industry.
To date, there are 4,984 women among the AMOSUP’s 111,604 members, but Filipino women account for only about two percent of over 400,000 seafarers deploy across the globe every year.
According to the International Maritime Organization, women seafarers represent only less than two percent of the world’s estimated 1.2 million seafarers. 94 percent of them work in the cruise industry and six percent, including Jasmin, toil on cargo vessels, container ships, or oil tankers.
“Being a woman in the industry means embracing who I am and not what others deem of me or what the status quo is,” Jasmin said.
Working with women onboard ships, she said, allows ship owners and captains to make use of “people who give their best in what they do and are flexible and resilient.”
When asked what she thinks can be done to empower the women seafarers, the captain said: “From grassroots, teach and learn to embrace equality. All of us have to practice not to discriminate and have more confidence in ourselves.”