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Sexual abuse at sea: 'I had nowhere to go'

Luisa von Richthofen
April 9, 2023

Sexist remarks, discrimination, sexual assault — these are part of everyday life for many female workers on ships. Usually, they say nothing. But one woman broke the silence.

Commercial vessels including vessels which are part of Black Sea grain deal wait to pass the Bosphorus strait off the shores of Yenikapi
The proportion of women to men working on ships is very low, but the rate of sexual abuse very highImage: UMIT BEKTAS/REUTERS

It was her childhood dream to become a seafarer — it took just a week for it to be shattered. Speaking with DW, Ann (full name known to editors) chose her words carefully.

"Yeah, when you're a woman, you have some bad experiences," she said. But later, she added that she was raped in just her second week at the marine college she attended in the United Kingdom, when she was only 16 years old. 

At the time, Ann was ashamed and told no one about what had happened. Today, the British woman said she didn't want her dream to end before it even began. On cargo ships, the proportion of female seafarers is just 2% of 1.5 million employees, and most are the only women on their ship. 

'Alone' and 'nowhere to go' 

But even on the new ship, Ann experienced more assaults. She recalled how the officer responsible for her training became a new persecutor. He made sure she always worked with him alone in the hold, where no one else could see them. She lived in constant fear of assault, seeing her tormentor at every meal.

One evening, she stepped out of the shower to find the officer in her room. He stared at her and grinned. Even in her cabin, she was not safe. 

Seafarer "Ann" on board a ship
Ann experienced sexual abuse at both marine college and on board several ships where she workedImage: Privat

Ann reported the officer, only to be told by a man in human resources that she should have expected it. What was her father thinking, sending her out to sea, the man asked, adding that he would never have sent his daughter to work on ships. From then on, she said, she knew she was alone: "I had nowhere to go." 

There are many cases like Ann's. Rachel Glynn-Williams, a psychologist who counsels people who work on ships, told DW that of all the female seafarers she had met over the years, only one said she had never experienced anything like this. 

Ann stuck to her job for 12 years, sailing all over the world — to Central America, around the Middle East. As each journey began, she wondered whether this time there would be a man among the crew who might create problems. She learned to avoid certain colleagues and to wear what she refers to as "the right clothes." 

Eventually, she was on the verge of becoming a captain herself. Even though the physical violations became less frequent over the years, the whispered insults, the leering looks and the bullying via social media remained. And, she said, they always came with the implicit message: A woman has no business on board a ship. Eventually, she took a job ashore. It was almost as if the harassers won, she told DW. 

Ann's experiences are not unique. The Women's International Shipping & Trading Association surveyed 1,128 female seafarers from 78 countries on the issue last year. Some 60% of the women reported they had experienced misogynistic discrimination on board, while 25% of respondents said physical and sexual harassment was common and that they had experienced having their privacy invaded on a ship. 

Shipping companies 'look the other way' 

It's a small miracle that these numbers even exist, because very few cases are reported to the police. Victims are reluctant to come forward because they often have to work in close proximity to their attackers for months. Becky Newdick, CEO of Safer Waves, an NGO that helps victims anonymously, said many young women do not want to put their careers at risk. 

And even if they report incidents, they face even more challenges. The nearest doctors and relevant police authorities are often thousands of miles away, making investigations and evidence recovery even more difficult than they are on land.

Since ship's crews change often, potential witnesses become difficult to find. In addition, when a crime takes place in the middle of international waters, it is rarely clear under which jurisdiction or law it should be investigated, said Newdick. 

Glynn-Williams said the culture of the industry is part of the problem. "But what can be even more awful and more protracted is the stuff that comes afterwards. How they were responded to, how their suffering is narrated and understood," she told DW. To this day, some women are still blamed — and the ways to report an incident are too complicated and burdensome.  

Her patients would often hear advice such as "Just smile it off," "You know how he is — just stay out of his way," and "It's a man's world, get used to it," Glynn-Williams said. "It's almost like it's the victim's job to either put up with it or to protect themselves from it rather than actually identifying the source of threat and danger and removing that." 

Seafarer "Ann's" cabin: a bed with blue blanket, a desk with a computer, a rectangular window
Ann's old cabin on board a ship wasn't a safe placeImage: Privat

Yet it would also make sense for companies to do just that. Working at sea can be dangerous, and crew members need to be able to count on each other. "If there's a toxic dynamic on board, that can be the cause of distraction and withdrawal," said Glynn-Williams. That quickly leads to an accident, she added.

It's not just about victims and perpetrators, but about everyone on board, said Glynn-Williams. "You know, it's a very risk-averse industry, and I don't know of any other safety risk that's handled so lightly." 

#MeToo at sea 

But slowly, things are starting to change. In 2021, a US woman named Hope Hicks, using the pseudonym "Midshipman X," published an account of how she survived rape as a cadet aboard a ship owned by the US subsidiary of Maersk, the world's largest container shipping company.

She wrote that every woman in her class at the US Naval Academy had experienced sexual harassment or assault on ships. Her writing sparked calls for a culture change in shipping, and politicians are taking an interest in the issue. It was a small #MeToo moment for the industry. 

Amalie Grevsen, responsible for cultural transformation at Maersk, told DW that the Danish company takes every incident seriously. Since the "Midshipman X" report, she said Maersk has increased resources for handling complaints and launched an extensive training program for employees. She also said the company has made a point of becoming a knowledgeable and robust organization whose employees know how to respond in an emergency.

Ann also volunteers to mentor entry-level employees. She shares her experiences at marine colleges in the UK, and hears the same stories from young women over and over. But at least they're talking about it now, she said.

She looks again at old photos of her old life: A picture of her cabin, which had a steel door and plywood walls, on which hung her work overalls and a helmet. Looking at the picture, she told DW, reminded her of how many hours she spent staring at that door, afraid someone would come in. She rarely even went out to eat. 

Ann has been in therapy for two years — an arduous process. She still wrestles with feelings of guilt. She no longer wants to think about whether she could have somehow prevented the assaults, on herself or even the women who came after her. 

But she's more hopeful now, because speaking about her experience takes some of the power away from her tormentors, she said. "It should be their shame, not mine." 

This article was originally written in German

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