Empowering Women in the Maritime World


Address by Efthimios E. Mitropoulos, Secretary-General, International Maritime Organization (read by Mr. R. G. Jones, Vice-President (Business Development), World Maritime University), 3 April 2008)


Ladies and gentlemen,

Although I am unable to be with you today at the World Maritime University - owing to an important meeting of IMO's Maritime Environment Protection Committee, which is scheduled to agree and develop further, among other matters, global standards and measures to reduce shipping's contribution to atmospheric pollution and greenhouse gas emissions - I am, nevertheless, extremely pleased to be able to share some thoughts with you in a conference which is both timely and far-sighted in its choice of subject.

The integration of women into all levels of political, economic and social development has been a major objective within the United Nations system for more than a quarter of a century. The years 1976 to 1985 were designated the United Nations Decade for Women and, during this period, many organizations of the United Nations system sought to implement programmes to achieve the advancement of women and promote gender equality. More recently, the concept was enshrined in the Millennium Development Goals adopted by the world's leaders in 2000; one of the eight specific targets they agreed to was to "Promote gender equality and empower women".

IMO has always endeavoured to play its part in working towards these ambitious and important objectives and that is why I am particularly pleased to be able to lend my support to this conference and associate myself fully and unreservedly with its spirit and its message.

During the course of this event you have heard and will hear more about a plethora of different initiatives in many parts of the world, and in many facets of the shipping industry, to integrate and empower women. There is clearly a groundswell underway, and I think it is important to place this movement in its broader context.

The full and equal participation of women in civil, cultural, economic, political and social life, at the national, regional and international levels, and the eradication of all forms of discrimination on grounds of gender, are, and must remain, priority objectives of the international community.

In global terms, women represent an increasing share of the world's labour force. However, there is no doubt that women remain at a disadvantage when it comes to securing paid jobs. Wage differentials, occupational segregation, higher unemployment rates and the disproportionately high representation of women in the informal and subsistence sectors serve to limit women's economic advancement. Social and cultural attitudes, employment policies and a lack of options for balancing work and family responsibilities, or for controlling the timing and spacing of births, contribute further to inequality in the labour market.

Back in the 1990s, two major world conferences - the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, in 1994, and the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, in 1995 - revolutionized the global view of international standards for the rights and empowerment of the world's women.

The ICPD put issues such as family planning, reproductive and sexual health care and women's empowerment squarely in the context of development, and underlined their critical importance to any social and economic progress. The Beijing Conference went further, forging international commitments to promote equality, development and peace for, and with, all the women of the world.

Both international agreements stressed that equality between women and men is a human rights concern, and that empowering women ensures the development of a sustainable and equitable society - no society can reach this goal without taking the productive role of women and their economic and educational empowerment into account. Both aimed to ensure that policies and programmes at all levels incorporate a gender perspective and properly address women's lives and women's needs.

The Beijing Conference identified a number of critical areas in which action was needed to empower women and ensure their human rights. Among them were women and poverty; the education and training of women; women and the economy; women in power and decision-making; and institutional mechanisms for the advancement of women. All of these remain relevant today and I have no doubt that the programmes and initiatives you are discussing during the course of this conference have a positive impact in all of these areas, and others besides.

Investing in women means removing all barriers that prevent women from realizing - or even exploring - their full potential as vital and valuable members of society. Education and training, as this conference has repeatedly emphasized, are essential in this. As a strong advocate for the equal participation of women and men at all levels, IMO has supported both governmental and non-governmental institutions in taking steps to bring about appropriate changes.

Education should be seen as a basic human right and an essential tool for achieving the goals of equality, development and peace. Equality of access to, and attainment of, educational qualifications are necessary if more women are to become empowered in the labour market and agents of change for a more civil society. Education and training are catalysts for change, and they enable women to realize their full potential. Support for the education of women and girls is critically important. Non-discriminatory education for children benefits both girls and boys and thus, ultimately, contributes to more equal relationships between women and men.

Yet education is a human right that is often curtailed for, or even denied to, women in much of the world. If women are to be fully empowered and if society as a whole is to reap the benefit of that empowerment, we must work to ensure equal access to education; eradicate illiteracy among women; improve women's access to vocational training, science and technology, and to continuing education; develop non-discriminatory education and training; and promote lifelong education and training for girls and women.

Despite progress in many of these areas, women still face discrimination because of ingrained cultural attitudes, early marriages, pregnancies, lack of accessible schools, and inadequate and gender-biased educational materials. And they continue to be denied quality education in science and technology.

Such continuing obstacles compromise women's ability to achieve economic autonomy and to ensure sustainable livelihoods for themselves and their dependents. Women's economic dependence and, often, lack of rights to property or access to finance have also long hindered their ability to take care of themselves and their families. That is why it is so important that we should support efforts to promote women's economic rights and independence, including access to employment, appropriate working conditions and control over economic resources. We need to facilitate women's equal access to resources, employment, markets and trade and can do this by ensuring that business services, training and access to markets, information and technology are freely available.

By bolstering women's education and their active participation in the economy, society as a whole will benefit. This is the essence of the United Nations Women in Development initiative, which has been taken up across the United Nations system. IMO produced its own strategy for the integration of women into the maritime sector in 1988 and began implementation of the IMO Women in Development Programme in 1989, concentrating on equal access to maritime training through both mainstream programmes and gender specific projects. The increased percentage of women students here at the World Maritime University (up from 6 per cent to 30 per cent in the last ten years) and at the IMO International Maritime Law Institute, Malta, serves to illustrate the programme's wider influence at the highest level of maritime training.

IMO places the human element and capacity-building high on its agenda, regardless of gender. In doing so, we recognize that the shipping industry must also reach out to every sector of the community if it is to attract the very best people to pursue a maritime career. IMO, therefore, takes specific measures, through its strategic planning and at the operational level of technical co-operation, to promote the increased participation of women in the maritime sector. This is reflected in the Organization's Strategic Plan and through its High Level Action Plan, which refer, notably, to "strengthening the role of women in the maritime sector", while, at the operational level, IMO's global Programme for the Integration of Women in the Maritime Sector is the primary vehicle for our support of the aforementioned Millennium Development Goal number 3: to "Promote gender equality and empower women".

The IMO programme I have just mentioned aims to: integrate women into mainstream maritime activities; improve women's access to maritime training and technology; increase the percentage of women at senior management level within the maritime sector; promote women's economic self-reliance, including access to employment; and consolidate the integration of women in the maritime sector as an integral element of IMO's technical co-operation activities.

One of its principal drivers has been the establishment of formal regional linkages between women managers in the maritime and port industries, to provide a permanent channel for the exchange of information relating particularly to the effective implementation and enforcement of global shipping standards. These associations also provide a springboard for developing regional training opportunities, to match the specific needs and requirements of women, taking into account the socio cultural elements which determine access to training and to career development.

The Pacific Women in Maritime Association (PacWIMA) was the first network to be launched with support from IMO's glogal programme, in Fiji in February 2004, and it has generated regional co operation and operational linkages for the women employed in the maritime sector throughout the Pacific Island region. The Network for Professional Women in the Maritime and Port Sectors of the West and Central Africa region was subsequently established in Benin, in February 2007, followed by the Arab International Women's Maritime Forum for the Middle East and North Africa and Africa as a whole, established in Alexandria, Egypt, in July 2007. A similar initiative has been undertaken in Mombasa, Kenya, to launch a formal association for professional women in the maritime and port sectors in the Eastern and Southern Africa region.

Turning for a moment to the shipping industry itself: it has long been acknowledged that, in many countries, shipping offers a way out of poverty for many workers. Employment in the industry provides access to foreign currency and a regular salary with a direct impact on the economic viability of seafarers and their extended families.

There is no intrinsic reason why women should not participate in, and benefit from, employment within the shipping industry. However, the shipping industry has been traditionally regarded as a male preserve and it is still only a small percentage of the global workforce of seafarers that are women - a committed and dedicated workforce that I salute wholeheartedly. Nevertheless, the relevance of sea experience to many shore-based jobs means that the resource of women with appropriate skills is limited and will continue to act as a long-term constraint on the representation of women in the maritime sector as a whole.

And, while there may also be cultural resistance to women working outside the home, the principal objections to employing women at sea would appear to centre on the lack of adequate separate facilities for women on board and the physical requirements inherent in the work. The traditional perception that seafaring is a man's job can lead to lack of training and work-experience opportunities for women, compounded by employers' reluctance to appoint those women that are trained. To break the cycle, proper training has a critical role in the integration of women into all spheres of professional life, with special emphasis on improving accessibility at all levels to potential women applicants.

Moreover, just as society as a whole benefits from the full and active participation of women in the work environment, so does the shipping industry as a whole stand to benefit from their large-scale integration into the labour force. Female seafarers are an under-utilized, underdeveloped but valuable resource that could provide part of the solution to the increasing problem of finding sufficient adequately trained personnel to manage and operate the world's growing and sophisticated merchant fleet.

However, it is clear that, to achieve this, there is a need for changes in attitude towards employing women as seafarers; recruitment of women in the shipping sector generally; and increased maritime training opportunities for women.

And so to conclude: we all recognize that women's rights are universal, indivisible and inalienable human rights that must be protected and promoted. Only by supporting and advocating for women's full empowerment at all stages of their lives can gender equality be achieved, and this applies in the workplace as much as in any other arena. We must strive to eliminate occupational segregation and all forms of employment discrimination and we must recognize that these goals are prerequisites for achieving political, social, economic, cultural and environmental security among all people.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you.