In 2010, Suneeti Bala became the first woman chief engineer onboard a marine vessel. Bala is the managing trustee and co-founder of the International Women Seafarers Foundation (IWSF) that was launched in 2017. She says while the percentage of woman seafarers is still very low in India and globally, fighting mindsets continues to be a challenge in the profession. An alumna of the Marine Engineering and Research Institute, she started her career as a junior engineer in 2002. Bala tells The Indian Express that shipping companies are yet to effectively address issues related to medical assistance, provision of sanitary napkins, maternity leave and sexual harassment.
How and when did the IWSF come about?
The International Women Seafarers Foundation (IWSF) was launched on November 3, 2017, in Mumbai. My fellow co-founders and I have known each other for the past 10 years. We got along naturally because there was a limited number of women in seafaring. The idea to initiate the IWSF was conceived in 2015-16. It all started with a WhatsApp group formed by us (woman seafarers) not knowing there are so many of us. Within a month, the number of girls reached over 100 and we all got connected, sharing our difficulties and challenges. While listening to the difficulties of women in the field, we realised the challenges we all faced. We had to make a path for juniors. But most of those difficulties are still there and there is hardly any change in two decades unlike the airline industry, which boomed and has great women participation, at least much better than ours'. Thus, our mentoring took real flight.
Why did you feel the need for a body like the IWSF?
We have understood that it is really important to come together under one platform in order to have one collective voice. There are various NGOs for women but when we researched, we found out that there were none for woman seafarers, nationally or internationally.
Meanwhile, in a case of sexual harassment and molestation, we started speaking to different parties helping a woman (complainant) and we were questioned if we were related to the woman or if we were her guardians, which we were not and had to take an authority letter from the parents of the woman in question to represent her, which led us into thinking that we need to have a face for these kind of representations.
How many members does the IWSF have?
So far we have 278 members from India and other countries. As per latest data, there were 985 active Indian woman seafarers in 2018, which included hospitality crew onboard cruise ships. However, considering only merchant marine fleet, numbers are considerably less.
Is a career at sea a popular choice among women?
The popularity is not there simply because there is little awareness among the masses about a career at sea. Common people lack knowledge about merchant navy as a whole, especially the fact that women too can join this profession. Currently, there is a supply and demand mismatch among all ranks, majorly in junior ranks where availability of seafarers is in surplus. It's been three decades in India since women started joining the officer cadre onboard cargo ships. However, even now there are only a few companies which employ them. We need more and more companies to be open to women candidates so that their inflow increases and they are provided with the opportunity to perform and negate the reservations held against them.
What are the challenges woman seafarers face onboard shipping vessels? How has that changed over the years?
One of the biggest challenges faced by women till date is the "mindset" of almost everyone towards them. It begins at the time of placement itself. Only a few companies hire them and thus only these companies have experience in dealing with women, others are reluctant in even starting to hire.
Lack of gender sensitivity among co-workers and lack of standardisation of policy/clear procedures are other challenges faced onboard. Things have been improving for the past few years. However, there is a long way to go.
Are more women coming forward to take up leadership roles in the shipping industry?
Yes, women are prepared to take up leadership roles but only a few companies promote women to higher ranks onboard. The number of women is still very low in seafaring - only 0.5 per cent in India and less than 2 per cent globally. Thus there are very few in leadership roles onboard and ashore.
In 2010, you became the first woman chief engineer onboard a marine vessel. Tell us about your journey.
When I joined my college, we were three women among 400 sea cadets. We had mixed opinions from cadets. Some accepted us readily, some took time. It was the college administration that played a very good role in treating us equally, be it physical training or workshops. Having experienced poor gender ratio prepared me for life onboard where, during most of my career, I was the only woman onboard.
Sailing with a multinational crew was smoothest as working women were quite normal. I sailed on a fully Russian crew vessel, where I was the only Indian and only woman. I shed a few kilos because I'm a vegan and the ship was mostly stocked with meat and lamb that was considered vegetarian. As a result, I had to switch to an automatic diet of salad and cereals. However, if I see work-wise, leaving aside people's perception, I actually am unable to acknowledge any specific difficult situation as a woman and, in reality, there was nothing that, as an officer onboard, I could not do.
Are there enough measures in place to ensure medical assistance, sanitary napkins, maternity leave for woman seafarers?
Surprisingly, no. Medical assistance, sanitary napkins and maternity leave are something that in general have not yet been addressed by shipping companies. Since our inception as the IWSF, apart from other work we do, we spread awareness continuously to bring changes at the national and international level.
After experiencing lack of measures in various areas, we realised there are things that are employer-specific. Good employers have measures in place for women-related matters, others don't. To bridge this gap and have standardisation among companies, the IWSF conducted three events last year at Chennai, Kolkata and Mumbai. In our annual event Vision Connect-Mumbai, "policy guidelines for woman seafarers' employment" were released by Dr Malini V Shankar, the then Director General (Shipping).
Maternity leave is a little different in case of woman seafarers compared to shore woman employees. As soon as a woman seafarer gets pregnant, most companies do not place them onboard or in case already onboard, sign them off, thus their leave starts from detection of pregnancy itself, extending to a minimum six to eight months of child care period. This period is not addressed by many companies, making it difficult for woman seafarers to rejoin after motherhood. We have made a recommendation for 18 months' gap and maternity leave as per national laws in case of permanent employment.
Basic needs onboard include availability of menstruation-related medicine and sanitary napkins. We have observed while medicine recommendation has been appreciated, sanitary napkin availability onboard faced resistance.
What are the redressal measures in place for instances of sexual harassment at the workplace?
The complaint procedure and redressal varies from employer to employer and needs standardisation. For that, we have introduced a format on redressal measures and complaint procedures for companies to consider. Due to the sensitivity of this topic, I have to keep the number of incidents confidential. Sexual harassment redressal needs a lot of improvement. Once a complaint comes ashore, there is a practice of signing off the woman, which not only compromises confidentiality but also, in most cases, the woman loses her job after long proceedings at shore.