More help needed for seafarers who face sexual violence

According to Human Rights at Sea, the global NGO advocating for the human rights of all people at sea, there are many instances of sexual violence at sea, including sexual assault and harassment, while others were made to feel unsafe. 

For example, women were offered what they thought was the opportunity of a lifetime: cheap accommodation and international travel in exchange for volunteer work on sailing vessels. Instead, some found themselves in a living nightmare alongside volatile or predatory skippers out at sea, with nowhere to escape.

A turning point came in 2021, when Maersk challenged the current narrative and the stigma around reporting abuse by suspending five crew members and launching a rape inquiry after a student claimed she was raped on one of their ships by an engineer. 

Human Rights at Sea talked to James Chalk, a trustee of Safer Waves, which offers support and information to merchant seafarers who have experienced sexual violence or gender discrimination while working at sea.

From Safer Waves’ perspective, what can websites which connect yacht crew with skippers do to ensure the safety of the people?

Websites and networking platforms should be designed to minimize risk to their users. This can be achieved by resilient safety policies, effective complaints procedures and a willingness to investigate claims against users in a timely manner. There should also be a certain number of safeguarding steps that need to be taken before two people are connected in person. 

For example, a preliminary video interview. I would go so far as to suggest that a website should have a hotline to call in the event that a person turns out to be falsifying their identity. Individuals are becoming increasingly aware of the risk to personal safety and data misuse whilst online, and I do believe that it is only a matter of time before websites that do not protect their users will be superseded by those that do. 

What do you think governments, industry and individuals can do to help prevent sexual abuse, harassment, and gender discrimination from happening time and time again at sea?

In my opinion, the first step is raising awareness. Those that work within the maritime industry understand how hidden it is. Despite the importance it plays in the global economy unless you are directly involved with the sector, it is a landscape few truly understand. When you combine this with the legal complexities, it is unsurprising that crime can go unchecked within the sector. 

However, by bringing the statistics, the stories and the truth into the spotlight governments, companies and individuals will be forced to act. We all have a role to play by remaining vigilant and speaking up when we see something wrong. For this reason, Safer Waves engages with industry and the authorities to raise awareness not just to the service we provide but to the side of the industry that some choose to ignore.  

In 2020, Safer Waves conducted a global survey on the perceived impact of sexual harassment and violence on victims’ lives, presenting shocking statistics. What has the response been since the report was published, and what improvements do you think can be implemented to ensure that data is captured accurately moving forward?

Since the report was published, we have seen a rise in the number of individuals stepping forward and sharing their experiences and stories. In some ways, the report validated for the first time that this was a common problem faced by multiple individuals throughout the sector. That had never been done before. 

In fact, we commonly get asked, “how many users are you getting?” which goes to show that there is still a gap in the data that we are trying to fill. We are currently working with the University of Winchester, Devon & Cornwall Police and The TK Foundation to develop a survey to further collect more data and develop effective solutions. 

The current policy at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) means that no perpetrator of human or labor rights abuses will be named and exposed. What hope does Safer Waves have that the safety of men and women at sea will improve whilst such policies are still in place?

The industry is changing at an ever-increasing pace, and we have some incredible people doing some outstanding work to ensure the safety of men and women at sea will improve despite such policies being in place. 

Whilst it can sometimes seem like an uphill battle, policy can be changed. Especially, as a new generation of seafarers steps up and calls for action. Think back to as recent as 2013 – only ten years ago – both Safer Waves and Human Rights at Sea didn’t exist. 

And yet here we are, moving the agenda forward to ensure that individuals working at sea are protected and supported. For me, that is a clear sign of progress, and there is certainly more to come. 

What advice do you have for anyone reading this who may have been sexually abused, harassed, or faced gender discrimination at sea?

Firstly, we are here to help. You don’t have to take this on alone. Often it can be difficult to know who to talk to, but our confidential and anonymous service can be accessed 24/7. We offer emotional support and can signpost individuals to the right groups if needed. We understand how isolating working at sea can be, and you can get in touch with our team via our website at any time. 

Human Rights at Sea acknowledges that the maritime industry has a culture and safety problem. Harassment and bullying, assault and intimidation, are difficult to quantify and prevent but are widespread. 

Martyn Illingworth, Human Rights at Sea, Head of Operations, said: “Sexual harassment and violence have no place in society. Women and men must be free to work and volunteer on vessels without the fear of predatory behavior. Perpetrators of sexual harassment and violence are able to use international waters as a hiding place from justice, and this cannot be allowed to continue.”

Text credit: Human Rights at Sea

Photo credit: iStock/PeopleImages

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