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Sexual abuse at sea: Where we stand

Sexual abuse at sea: Where we stand
The Editorial Team March 20, 2023

The International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN) has identified abuse and harassment -including sexual abuse and harassment- as key challenges to seafarers’ mental health.

Even though the unique nature of the shipping industry makes sexual harassment, assault, abuse and intimidation difficult to quantify and prevent, an increasing focus on spreading awareness of the issue seeks to turn the ship around with respect to sexual abuse reporting.

What are sexual harassment and abuse at sea?

Sexual abuse is a form of sexual violence that involves unwanted sexual activity or behavior imposed on an individual through force, threats, manipulation, or coercion. This includes not only rape and sexual assault but also uncomfortable persuasion and inappropriate remarks.

While sexual harassment is a significant area of concern in every working environment, the enclosed and isolated shipping environment poses unique challenges when it comes to monitoring and preventing the phenomenon.

Employees can be at sea for long periods of time, often without access to shore support. This isolation can make it easier for perpetrators to commit abuse and more difficult for victims to report it. In addition, the hierarchical structure of the shipping industry may make it difficult for victims to speak out, as they may fear retaliation or damage to their careers.

Sexual harassment at sea: Latest updates

A recent report from The Guardian Australia revealed that numerous women have shared their negative experiences after meeting boat captains through popular sailing websites such as Crewbay. Despite being promised an exciting opportunity of affordable lodging and international travel in exchange for volunteer work on sailing vessels, some of them claimed to have endured terrifying experiences alongside unstable or predatory captains while out at sea, with no means of escape.

In addition, recent data from ISWAN’s helpline for people working in the superyacht industry, Yacht Crew Help, showed abuse, bullying, harassment and discrimination are collectively the issues that most commonly occur alongside mental health challenges for yacht crew. Sexual harassment and/or sexual assault at sea were key reasons why crew members sought support from Yacht Crew Help in 2022.

In addition, an in-depth survey conducted by WISTA International, Anglo Eastern, ISWAN and ICS to 1,128 women from 78 countries late last year showed 25% of them reporting that in the shipping sector, physical and sexual harassment is common, occurring onboard and involving intrusions on their privacy.

In 2021, Danish shipping giant Maersk challenged the prevailing narrative and stigma surrounding abuse reporting by suspending five crew members and launching an investigation into a rape allegation made by a student who claimed to have been assaulted by an engineer on one of their ships.

Latest figures on sexual harassment and abuse at sea

Meanwhile, Safer Waves, the UK charity offering support to seafarers who have experienced sexual assault, sexual harassment, or gender discrimination onboard, undertook a survey in 2020 in a bid to determine the perceived impact of sexual harassment and violence on seafarers’ lives. 72.5% of participants identified as female and 27.5% as male, while the vast majority of participants live in Europe and North America.

Participants were asked if they had experienced any of the following forms of abuse/discrimination. The results showed the majority of respondents had experienced one or more, with only 26% of respondents stating that they had not been subjected to any of these forms of abuse:

Discrimination based on gender – 65.6%
Sexual harassment – 58.8%
Sexual assault – 24.4%
Rape – 8.4%
Prefer not to say – 1.5%

Another notable takeaway from this survey was that anonymous online chat and anonymous email support were identified by the participants as the most popular options for support delivery to seafarers.

The post-survey feeling from Safer Waves is that organizations already have effective mentoring programs in place, so the charity will focus its efforts initially on delivering emotional support using anonymous online methods.

How is the shipping industry dealing with sexual harassment at sea?

Awareness, strong policies and procedures and education and training to all personnel onboard the ship -including crew members, officers, and passengers- are always the starting points for dealing with underreporting of such incidents at sea. This training should cover topics such as what constitutes sexual harassment and abuse, how to identify and report it, and how to respond appropriately to a victim.

Safer Waves has a dedicated confidential and anonymous email service that can be accessed 24/7. The service ([email protected]) is available to seafarers of any nationality or gender and offers emotional support, resources and signposting.

The email support volunteers are trained in responding to disclosures of sexual violence, and the aim of the service is to help alleviate some of the distress and isolation that seafarers may feel when trying to navigate these difficult experiences alone.

In addition, seafarers needing support can contact ISWAN’s free, confidential helplines SeafarerHelp ( or Yacht Crew Help ( at any time. Seafarers can also share their stories and find support through SeaCode, an anonymous platform developing alongside the COPE° Working Group for victims and survivors of abuse, bullying, harassment and discrimination in the maritime industry.