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Sexual Harassment Onboard: Understanding, Addressing, and Seeking Resources

The maritime industry, like any other, is not immune to the challenges of sexual assault. Being on a ship poses unique hurdles due to its isolated and confined environment. Understanding, identifying, and dealing with such cases onboard requires the collaboration of the entire crew and management. This article aims to shed light on identifying signs, addressing situations, and providing support to victims of sexual assault onboard vessels.

Understanding Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is any unwanted behavior of a sexual nature that interferes with an individual's employment, safety, or performance. This can include:

  • Unwanted sexual comments, gestures, or advances.

  • Sharing or displaying inappropriate sexual material.

  • Making derogatory remarks about someone's gender or sexuality.

  • Offering job-related benefits in exchange for sexual favors..

As a Victim: Steps to Take

  1. Prioritize Your Safety: If you've been assaulted, first find a safe location on the ship. Seek out a trustworthy shipmate if you need immediate support.

  2. Preserve Evidence: Refrain from showering or changing clothes, as this can preserve crucial evidence if you decide to pursue legal action.

  3. Report: Inform a higher authority on the ship. If you're uncomfortable reporting to a direct superior, seek out another senior member.

  4. Medical Attention: Even if there are no visible injuries, consult the onboard medical facility or personnel. They can address potential injuries, provide medication, or offer guidance.

  5. Stay Connected: Reach out to friends or family when possible. While connectivity might be limited, having someone to talk to can offer much-needed emotional support.

Recognizing the Signs of Sexual Assault

  1. Behavioral Changes: A victim of sexual assault might display sudden behavioral changes. This can include withdrawal from social interactions, sudden outbursts, or visible distress. Recognizing these shifts in behavior can be a step towards identifying a potential issue.

  2. Physical Signs: While not always present, physical signs can include unexplained bruises, scratches, or other injuries. A victim might also exhibit changes in their personal hygiene or dressing habits, potentially as a means of self-protection or hiding injuries.

  3. Avoidance: If a seafarer begins to avoid specific areas of the ship or certain crew members, it might be a sign of discomfort stemming from an unsettling incident.

Support for Victims Onboard

  1. Confidentiality: Maintain the confidentiality of the victim. Only the necessary crew members involved in handling the situation should know about it.

  2. Provide Support: Offer counseling or emotional support to the victim. Being on a ship means limited resources, but showing understanding and compassion can make a significant difference.

  3. Reach Out: If possible, get in touch with organizations or helplines that cater to such issues, even if remotely. They might offer guidance or counseling to the victim.

Prevention and Training

  1. Training: Regular training sessions for all crew members about sexual harassment and assault, detailing what constitutes as assault, its implications, and the importance of preventing it.

  2. Safe Reporting Mechanisms: Establish clear procedures for reporting sexual assault without fear of retaliation.

  3. Strict Protocols: Establish a zero-tolerance policy toward any form of harassment or assault. Any crew member found guilty should face strict disciplinary actions, and if necessary, legal repercussions.

  4. Bystander Intervention Training: Equip crew members with tools to intervene safely when they notice troubling behavior, thus possibly preventing assault.

Dealing with Cases Onboard

  1. Encourage Reporting: Cultivate an environment where crew members feel safe to report any incidents without fear of retaliation. This requires transparent processes and assurance from higher authorities on the vessel.

  2. Immediate Investigation: Once a case is reported, initiate an immediate investigation. Keep the process confidential, involving only those who need to be in the loop.

  3. Protection of the Victim: Ensure the victim is safe from the alleged assailant. This might involve reassigning duties or providing a separate living space.

  4. Legal Implications: Depending on the ship's flag state and the jurisdictions of the ports it visits, different legalities will come into play. It's essential to be aware of these and to involve the relevant authorities if necessary.

  5. Professional Counseling: While ships might not have counselors onboard, consider arranging remote counseling sessions for the victim. In the long term, consider having a counselor as part of the crew or arranging regular sessions during port calls.

Resources to Reach Out

  1. Ship’s Chain of Command: Start by reporting the harassment to a superior officer or the ship's captain. If the harassment involves someone in your direct chain of command, or if you feel uncomfortable reporting it to them, approach another senior officer.

  2. Ship's Medical Officer: They can provide immediate emotional support and document any physical evidence that might be relevant.

  3. Company’s HR or Designated Officer: Most maritime companies have a designated officer or department to handle cases of harassment or discrimination.

  4. Union Representative: If you are part of a seafarers' union, they can be an invaluable resource. They can guide you through the process of filing a complaint and ensure your rights are protected.

  5. Seafarer Welfare Organizations: Institutions such as the International Seafarers' Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN) operate helplines like SeafarerHelp, a 24/7 multilingual helpline.

  6. Onshore Counseling Services: If the incident has deeply affected your mental well-being, consider seeking counseling during your shore leaves. Many maritime hubs have services specifically tailored to seafarers.

  7. Legal Counsel: If your company does not take adequate action, or if you believe you need protection under the law, consider seeking legal advice.

  8. Online Forums and Support Groups: These can be spaces to share experiences, gain insights, and seek advice anonymously, especially when there's limited access to other resources while at sea.

Addressing sexual assault onboard requires a multi-faceted approach, from recognizing signs to ensuring victim support. While the maritime environment has its unique challenges, it's essential to remember that the safety and well-being of all crew members should always be a top priority. With clear guidelines, training, and an environment of trust, ships can create a safer and more respectful space for everyone on board.


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