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Safe horizons: Women shaping the future of maritime safety

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As we anticipate the celebration of Women in Maritime tomorrow, May 18, 2024, under the theme “Safe Horizons: Women Shaping the Future of Maritime Safety,” I am compelled to reflect on my own journey into the maritime world. Looking back to my humble beginnings, I feel a strong urge to share a narrative encompassing challenges, triumphs, and the imperative for progress.

In 2001, when I embarked on my career at The Gambia Ports Authority as a trainee pilot, I was a newcomer to the intricacies of port operations. Fresh out of high school, it was the first job opportunity I pursued. I remember vividly how I delved into a dictionary to comprehend the role of a sea pilot in preparation for my job interview, having had no prior exposure to maritime terminology. My familiarity with ships was limited to occasional ferry rides across the Banjul Barra crossing as a passenger. Nonetheless, driven by an inherent fascination for the sea, I embarked on a path that would shape my future.

My journey, akin to that of numerous women in traditionally male-dominated fields, has been marked by obstacles. In a society where patriarchal norms hold sway, even the slightest hint of impropriety can tarnish one’s reputation. I recall a recent incident where unfounded rumors about my character surfaced, depicting me as a woman of questionable morals and a heavy drinker. I was taken aback by the baseless accusations. To hear claims of alcoholism and misconduct was disheartening. While I had encountered occasional criticism for working predominantly with men, this accusation was

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2224

unprecedented and deeply unsettling. Faced with such slander, I stood resolute, reaffirming my principles and unwavering dedication to integrity. Yet, I cannot help but ponder: what if such allegations had arisen during my formative years? You see, I started this job at the impressionable age of 18 years, when young women are alert to criticism and comparisons. At 40 years old, I would not care less. But would I have possessed the fortitude to withstand the onslaught of judgment in my late teens and twenties? These reflections underscore the urgent necessity for psychological safety—an environment that transcends physical boundaries and shields women from the corrosive effects of societal scrutiny.

My journey into the maritime world was guided by men of integrity, mentors who treated me with respect and dignity. I would recall here: Pilots- Momodou ABS Mboob, Ivor Forster, the late Wally Sanyang, Kulay Manneh and Ebrima Jobe. Yet, as I embarked on my quest to become a sailor, I found myself confronting a glaring absence of support and protection. The specter of isolation and vulnerability loomed large as I contemplated months at sea, surrounded by strangers in a male-dominated environment. The harrowing tales of female sailors subjected to assault and abuse only served to deepen my apprehension. In the absence of reassurance and safeguards, the path to maritime excellence felt perilous and uncertain.

Even as I ascended the ranks, obtaining the highest levels of training and expertise, I encountered barriers that hindered my advancement. The gender bias entrenched within maritime institutions denied me the opportunities commensurate with my qualifications and experience. Despite my years of service and dedication, I found myself overlooked for positions that would have allowed me to translate my knowledge into practice. The inequity of opportunity, the pervasive sense of being undervalued – these were the bitter fruits of a system that perpetuates gender disparities.

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Despite my contributions and accomplishments, the glass ceiling remained firmly intact, impeding my progress at every turn. In 2019, after nearly two decades in the maritime field, I made the difficult decision to retire from the civil service on marriage grounds. My retirement, after 18 years of service—nine with the Gambia Ports Authority and nine with the Gambia Maritime Administration—felt like a paltry acknowledgment of my dedication. While I understand that early retirement is often discouraged for reasons of economic and social impact, the reality was disheartening. It felt like a forced exit from a career I had poured my heart and soul into.

Retiring from the maritime sector was not just a career transition; it was a profound shift in identity and purpose. The phrase “Fey suma wor sak neh kut fe”—”My fate is not destined to be in the maritime field”—echoed in my mind as I contemplated my next steps. I chose to pivot towards a career in communications, a field I felt innately drawn to. Thus, I embarked on a new chapter, leveraging my expertise first as a Specialist for the UN System in The Gambia and later as an individual consultant, aiming to effect change from outside the confines of institutional bias.

However, the consequences of early retirement for women in male-dominated industries like maritime are far-reaching and often underestimated. Beyond the loss of income and career trajectory, early retirement can perpetuate gender disparities and reinforce stereotypes about women’s roles in the workforce. For me, it meant relinquishing years of experience and expertise that could have continued to make significant contributions to the maritime sector. It also highlighted the systemic challenges that women face in balancing career aspirations with societal expectations, particularly regarding marriage and family.

Moreover, the decision to retire on marriage grounds underscores the persistent gender norms that dictate women’s choices and opportunities. In Gambia, early retirement before the age of 45 often comes with meager compensation, which adds another layer of complexity to the decision, particularly for women in male-dominated fields like maritime. While retirement packages are intended to provide financial support during the transition to post-employment life, the reality for many women is that the compensation offered falls significantly short of providing a sustainable livelihood.

For someone who has dedicated nearly two decades to the maritime sector, the financial implications of early retirement can be devastating. The compensation received may not be enough to cover basic living expenses, let alone support long-term financial stability or provide for dependents. This disparity in retirement benefits between genders further exacerbates gender inequality, as women are disproportionately affected by financial insecurity in their later years.

The inadequacy of early retirement compensation in Gambia highlights broader systemic issues related to social protection and economic empowerment, particularly for women. It underscores the need for comprehensive policies and interventions that address gender disparities in retirement benefits and ensure equitable access to financial resources for all individuals, regardless of gender or occupation.

Moreover, the disparity in retirement compensation reflects deeper societal attitudes towards women’s work and value in the labor market. By offering lower compensation for early retirement, the system implicitly undervalues the contributions of women. This perpetuates the cycle of economic dependence and reinforces stereotypes about women’s roles as caregivers rather than breadwinners.

Despite these challenges however, my transition into communications has been empowering. It has allowed me to channel my passion for advocacy and change-making into a new arena while advocating for greater inclusivity and gender equity in all sectors, including maritime. My journey serves as a reminder of the adaptability of women in the face of systemic barriers, and it reinforces the importance of creating environments where all individuals, regardless of gender, can thrive and contribute their fullest potential.

As we contemplate the future of maritime safety, it is imperative that we confront the systemic biases that hinder the progress of women in the field. The lack of psychological and physical safety not only undermines our potential but also threatens the very fabric of maritime excellence. We cannot afford to squander the talents and aspirations of half our population – for in doing so, we diminish the richness and diversity of our maritime community.

It is time to dismantle the barriers that stand in the way of women’s advancement, to foster an environment where every individual is empowered to thrive and contribute their fullest potential. Let us work together to shape a future where the horizons of maritime safety are safe and inclusive for all.

As we stand at the crossroads of change, it is incumbent upon us to not only acknowledge the barriers that hinder women’s participation in the maritime industry but also to chart a course toward a future defined by inclusivity and safety. To that end, I propose a series of solutions aimed at shaping the future of maritime safety and fostering an environment where women can thrive and excel.

Firstly, we must address the critical need for comprehensive training and support mechanisms tailored to the unique challenges faced by women in the maritime industry. This includes providing mentoring programs, networking opportunities, and avenues for professional development that empower women to navigate the complexities of the maritime world with confidence and resilience.

Secondly, we must prioritize the implementation of robust policies and protocols aimed at promoting gender equality and preventing harassment and discrimination in all its forms. This requires a concerted effort to foster a culture of respect and accountability, where every individual is valued and treated with dignity, regardless of gender or background.

Thirdly, we must advocate for greater representation of women in leadership positions within maritime institutions and organizations. By elevating women to positions of influence and decision-making, we can ensure that their voices are heard and their perspectives are taken into account in shaping policies and practices that affect the entire maritime community.

Furthermore, we must work collaboratively with industry stakeholders, government agencies, and civil society organizations to raise awareness about the importance of gender equality and safety in the maritime sector. This includes launching public awareness campaigns, organizing workshops and training sessions, and engaging in dialogue with key stakeholders to build consensus and drive meaningful change.

Lastly, we must harness the power of technology and innovation to enhance maritime safety and security for all. This includes leveraging advancements in digitalization, data analytics, and remote monitoring to improve risk assessment, emergency response, and accident prevention measures.

In conclusion, shaping the future of maritime safety requires a multifaceted approach that addresses the root causes of gender inequality and fosters a culture of inclusivity, respect, and safety for all. By working together and embracing the principles of diversity and equality, we can create a maritime industry that is not only safe and sustainable but also equitable and empowering for women around the world.

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