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Saturday, 24 September 2016

Female seafarers’ shocking revelation: To our bosses, we are just sex tools

After a two-hour interview with the middle-aged dark-complexioned man in his office on Victoria Island, Lagos, Sarah Abiodun, a marine engineer, thought she had secured a job with the shipping company.

“He told me I performed excellently. I felt good. I also knew I did. I was well prepared for the interview. I have what any shipping company could be looking for. I have the needed quality, skill and certification to excel on the job,” she said.

But within few minutes after the interview, her optimism turned sour. She would later learn that getting a job at the company was not just about performing well at an interview.

She said, “He said I needed to come and spend one weekend with him at a posh hotel in Lekki. I asked him what that was all about. He replied, ‘Don’t tell me you don’t know what I’m asking for. You are not a kid. You have all it takes to work here.’ I was heartbroken. I knew I had lost the job right there because I wouldn’t sleep with a man to get any job in my life.”

Abiodun left sorrowfully that day, but few days later, she got another call for an interview at a shipping firm in Apapa, where there are a number of ports and terminals operated by the Nigerian Ports Authority and commercial offices of many shipping, clearing and transportation companies.

“After the interview, my interviewer wanted us to have sex right there in his office. I had to take to my heels immediately,” she said.

Since then, Abiodun, who was trained at the Arab Academy for Science and Technology and Maritime Transport, Alexandria, Egypt, has been worried whether she would be able to practise her profession.

“They are always asking for sex before they would employ me and I’m tired. I have friends who are experiencing the same thing,” she lamented.

Apart from sexual harassment, Abiodun said she had also been facing gender discrimination by some shipping companies who said they wouldn’t employ her because she is a woman.

She said, “Other companies I’ve applied to, they told me it was their policy not to employ women. This gender discrimination started when I was in school. Some lecturers treated us as equals to men. However, I was surprised that while doing some courses and certifications, some lecturers asked us what we women were doing in the academy.

“But the question that usually popped in my mind was why did they admit us in the first place? Didn’t they see that we were women? While going for job interviews, I am surprised that this question always comes up. Why do shipping firms discriminate against us? If I don’t work, my certificate will expire in January 2017 and I have to renew it. But how can I renew it when I have not yet started working and don’t have money?”

Abiodun is even more bothered because even though she has not yet started working, she has started facing sexual harassment and gender discrimination.

“What will now happen when I finally secure a job?” she asked.

Lizzy Akunna, a fair-complexioned ship captain, has gone through this route before.

In 2009 when she was a deck cadet and worked longer and harder than her male colleagues, it wasn’t because she liked it. It was a way of being punished for refusing to date her male boss on-board.

She said, “I’ve experienced sexual harassment on-board. It is not something to wish for, but it’s something you cannot escape. In 2009 when I experienced it, I resisted it. To punish me, my boss who asked me out gave me more work to do. I was supposed to finish work by 4am daily, but he would extend it by two hours to make me work longer. But I wouldn’t complain.

“I did all he asked. I could not report to the ship captain because he too was interested in me. I told my female colleagues and they encouraged me not to succumb to the pressure. If I wanted to date my captain or any other boss, I could have, but I would lose my virtue and wouldn’t be able to use my initiatives again.

“Imagine dating a boss, he would not want to give me work to do and I would just be idle on-board, but in the long run, I would not improve on my career. When I’m on-board, I’m not here to look for men.”

Now a ship captain, Akunna said if she had not stood her ground, she would not have been able to be who she is today. However, gender discrimination is another challenge she has been facing.

She said, “Discrimination has always been there. When I was looking for job, among all the applicants, only two of us were females. When it was time for the interview, the company officials looked at us annoyingly as if we were dumbheads. One of them even asked us, ‘Are you sure you’re going to pass this interview?’ But we proved them wrong.

“Both of us ladies were the best. Up till now, we ladies do more to prove them wrong. When I was a cadet, they used me. I worked very hard. When some people see me today, they think I’m a pampered girl because of the way I look, but if you see my hands, you will know that it’s not easy. I carried hammer and all sorts of tools. There is no tool I cannot use.”

Asked how life on the sea has been, Akunna said, “Not easy, but when you do what you love, it’s easy. My family can’t sometimes reach me because when I’m on the sea, there might not be network to make or receive calls. But I have a supportive family who understands what it’s like to pursue your passion.”

This feeling is also what has kept Uche Okocha, a ship captain, going even in the face of sexual harassment and gender discrimination since 11 years ago when she started her career. Despite all these, Okocha said she had found the strength to overcome intimidation by men.

She said, “My job deals with the movement of cargo and people from place to place and the maintenance of ship. I’ve been at sea since 2005 and I started my career with a company called Genesis Worldwide. I can say that was the only company that was willing to accept female seafarers then. In fact, the owner of the company was passionate about getting women employed as long as they’re qualified. He used to encourage us and monitor us to excel just like men.

“I searched for jobs at almost all the shipping firms at Apapa. Some of the companies told us outright that they could not employ women because of petty reasons. They said women were troublesome. They said they didn’t want women problems. Some said there were no facilities on board their vessels for women, which is true. There are some vessels which are small and have no facilities to cater for women needs.

“Talking about being intimidated by men, I’ve never felt intimidated. I do my work properly and I’m passionate about it. This is a profession whereby you can come in as a low-level person, but with hard work and promotion, you can get to the top, whether men love or hate you. Imagine having 50 men being under you, there could be some level of intimidation, but you should be able to manage it. It’s one of those industries you would enjoy to work in.”

Forty-five-year-old Stella Okponya, one of the first female captains in the country who has been on the job for 20 years, says sexual harassment and intimidation by male colleagues are not strange to her.

She said, “Yes, you cannot rule it out. Men ask us out, but it depends on the lady seafarer to know what she wants. There are some men who cannot see somebody in skirt. They must chase her. There was an experience I went through when I was starting my career. There was a particular expatriate captain who said I was rude because I didn’t succumb to him sleeping with me. But then, I had started seeing myself as a man.

“He tried to cook up some allegations that I was lazy, stubborn and didn’t listen to instructions. Meanwhile, my hard work was there for everyone to see. Eventually, his allegations were thrown out.”

Okponya, whose father was a ship captain, also shared a recent experience of gender discrimination with our correspondent.

She said, “The discrimination is always there and currently I’m experiencing one. In the company where I work, I’ve been running a vessel for a year. But recently, a firm run by the whites came to Nigeria to merge with our firm. But instead of them to let me continue running the vessel, they have given it to a male captain and I’m unhappy about it. I saw it as discriminatory.

“I’m not angry with the new captain, but with my employer who couldn’t convince them that I could run the vessel. Maybe he didn’t have the confidence to convince them that I could run it. But I’ve been running a vessel with my crew successfully and there has been no problem whatsoever. He’s seen me move the ship. His position made me feel incompetent. I would like the concerned agencies to look into cases of gender discrimination and put up policies to support us women.”

Narrating how she’s been able to run her family and being a captain, she said, “Before I got married, I used to sail across international waters, but now, I only sail across national waters. I also cook food not easier for my maid to cook and preserve in the freezer. My husband is also understanding and has been very supportive.

“In a male-dominated industry like ours, women are bound to meet challenges and they should be ready to work 10 times harder than men to prove themselves. If they have menstrual pain, they shouldn’t lie down. I remember there was a time when I was just starting my career and I complained of menstrual pain, but the American captain I was working with told me I shouldn’t lie down.

“He walked to his cabin and brought out some medicine. I was surprised. After taking the medicine, I was okay. His action inspired me that day. I was strong thereafter and I’ve always been strong. I always tell female seafarers to see themselves as men. They should stay focussed. However, the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency needs to do a lot, especially for the upcoming ones.”

If NIMASA had done a lot, perhaps Sherifat Jimba, 27, who schooled at the Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transport, Alexandria, Egypt, would have been able to secure a job, but she has yet to due to gender discrimination.

While in Egypt, she was employed as a deck cadet at a shipping firm, but since returning to the country, most companies she had applied to said they would not employ her simply because she’s a woman.

“They said they were not looking for women seafarers. Some said the timing is wrong due to pirate attacks.. Meanwhile, my certificate will expire next year. With this discrimination, how will I pursue my passion?” she asked.

For women seafarers who have been able to overcome this challenge and are now employed, working on-board with male colleagues is yet another challenge.

Lola Isidaome, a ship mate whose job entails safety operations in cargo, says “People see us women as unable to do the job, but I’ve always proved them wrong. I let them know that women can do the impossible. However, in order to do this, we work harder than our male colleagues. We do more.

“Women seafarers are focussed. Everyone thinks being a female means you cannot do the job. But with discipline, which is my watchword, we can. I’m the only female on the vessel I work with right now, and I thank God the company has a strong policy against sexual harassment.”

Mariam Hassan, a marine engineer who works as a ship maintenance and safety officer, would have long quit if she had also succumbed to intimidation by male colleagues on-board.

“Discipline and knowing what you want is key. I started as a cadet in 2009 and now I’m an officer. I am respected. It’s a job I signed on for and love doing. I’ve enjoyed every company I worked with,” she said.

Meanwhile, a shipping company owner at Apapa, who pleaded anonymity, told our correspondent that it was out of pity that his company doesn’t employ female seafarers.

“The job is risky and I don’t think women should be there, especially in this country where pirates attack is the highest in the Gulf of Guinea. Some of the women we’ve employed in the past used to complain of poor welfare, no special facilities for them on-board, and so on. I got tired of these complaints along the line and that’s why I stopped hiring women,” he said.

Sexual harassment, gender discrimination, a global phenomenon

Over 18 per cent of women seafarers globally have decried sexual harassment by men on-board, according to a 2015 survey jointly carried out by the Women’s International Shipping and Trading Association, the International Maritime Health Association, the International Seafarers Welfare and Assistance Network, the International Workers’ Federation and the Seafarers Hospital Society.

The President, WISTA Nigeria, Mrs. Mary Hamman, has also highlighted some challenges faced by women seafarers.

She said, “Five hundred and ninety-five responses were received from women seafarers from a range of nationalities, ages and positions on board ships. The survey said that joint/back pain, stress/depression, anxiety and headache, seem to be the most common symptoms reported by women seafarers and that 55 per cent felt that they are related to their work.

“Forty eight per cent stated that they have problems with seeking medical care and offer suggestions to improve this. Significantly, 37 per cent of women seafarers also stated that they did not have access to sanitary bins within the toilet, while 18 per cent say that sexual harassment is an issue.”

She also lamented that some employers were often reluctant to appoint women cadets/qualified seafarers because of a “misled belief” that women work at sea for less time than men.

“Women are often paid less than men doing the same work. Women may be denied the facilities/equipment available to men on-board,” she said.

Also, in a 2015 study by the International Labour Organisation, titled “Women Seafarers: Global employment policies and practices,” women represent only about two per cent of the world’s 1.25 million seafarers.

The Director of the ILO Sectoral Activities Department, Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry, said she was concerned that even though many maritime training institutions were actively encouraging women to enrol, once on-board vessels, women often experience problems in being initially accepted, sometimes having to “prove themselves.”

She added, “Sexual harassment is a reality for many women at sea. This can range from persistent verbal harassment and inappropriate comments, to physical assault.

“As concerns other issues, such as maternity benefits and availability of certain products required by women, it seems we have a long way to go. Sexual harassment policies are, of course, important. Trade unions should take up these matters and other issues such as maternity benefits, when negotiating collective agreements.”

Even though Section 17(1)(2) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria says that “every citizen shall have the equality of right, obligations, and opportunity before the law” and Section 42 states that “no Nigerian citizen shall be discriminated against because of a particular sex, religion or ethnic group,” it has not been easy for women seafarers in the country.

Abdullahi Kangiwa, in his article, “Gender discrimination and feminism in Nigeria,” said it was unfortunate that women are under-represented in almost every sphere of social and political life in the country, including in the maritime sector.

In order to address this situation, he said, “The government should put an end to all forms of gender discrimination in both public and private sectors, including in education, employment, housing, and property and inheritance rights. Additionally, anti-discrimination legislation and affirmative action should be pursued, and there needs to be legal protection for the fundamental rights of the girl child on religious, social, and economic life.

“The structures that prop up patriarchy by giving men ascendency in inheritance, authority, and decision-making should be discouraged through education, enlightenment, and national awareness.”

The spokesperson for the Marine Professionals of Nigeria, Oluwasegun Akanbi, said female seafarers are encouraged to report cases of sexual harassment to the female captains on-board, while raising the alarm over the “gradual extinction of female seafarers in the maritime sector.”

He said, “Presently, there are no policies by NIMASA to guard against sexual harassment and gender discrimination of female seafarers. Even if there are, some of these policies are just theoretical. There is no implementation.

“NIMASA needs to make it mandatory for companies to employ female seafarers. Provisions should also be made for females on-board. Also, procedure for reporting, investigating and disciplining must be clearly stated to checkmate sexual harassment. The gap of communication between the seafarers and NIMASA is too wide. They should create a feedback forum with us to identify some problems we are facing so as to create a continuous improvement.”

The spokesperson for NIMASA, Mrs. Lami Tumaka, said women seafarers experiencing any form of sexual harassment and gender discrimination should not hesitate to report to the agency.

“We already have policies guarding against these practices and they are being effected,” she said.

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