“We Are Just Sex Tools”- Women in the Shipping Sector Recount Experiences of Sexual Harassment & Discrimination

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Sarah Abiodun is trained at the Arab Academy for Science and Technology and Maritime Transport, Alexandria, Egypt. She is a Marine Engineer and on this faithful day thought she had secured a job with the shipping company after undergoing a two-hour interview with the boss of a company located in Victoria Island, Lagos, but little did she know what was coming next. She recounts her story to Punch saying:

“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.

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 the office sad 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.”

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

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

Another lady named Lizzy Akunna– a professional ship Captain, has had similar experiences. She recounts hers saying:

“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.

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.

“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 dumb heads. 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.

Uche Okocha, a ship captain says this she kept going even in the face of sexual harassment and gender discrimination since she started her career 11 years ago when. 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.

“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.

Talking about how she balances work and family, 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.”

Sherifat Jimba, 27, a graduate of Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transport, Alexandria, Egypt was employed as a deck cadet at a shipping firm in Egypt, but since she returned home to Nigeria most companies she had applied to said they would not employ her simply because she’s a woman.

She says: “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?

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.

She says: “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.

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.”

 


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