ISWAN: The stigma of on-board menstruation should be ended

ISWAN has partnered with the official Menstrual Hygiene Day campaign to end the stigma surrounding menstruation and raise awareness of the challenges women seafarers face when working on board.

Women are a minority in the seafaring workforce, particularly in commercial shipping. Many facilities and welfare provision both on board ship and in ports were designed primarily for male seafarers and may not always meet the needs of women. The provision and disposal of menstrual products is a key example of this tendency.

Port-Based Welfare Needs of Women Seafarers by Seafarers International Research Centre Cardiff University (SIRC), reported that none of the 30 women interviewed had access to an appropriate facility for the hygienic disposal of sanitary products on board. At best, bins were provided without any provision for emptying or seafarers were told to dispose of sanitary waste in with plastic waste on board, causing them embarrassment and sometimes humiliation.

‘If we are at long voyage they separate the garbage, and that makes me very conscious because what if they might see my sanitary napkins and then they might laugh at me’

– Woman seafarer (Port-Based Welfare Needs of Women Seafarers, SIRC 2023)

Another source of stress for women seafarers is the lack of provision of menstrual products (sanitary towels, tampons, etc.) on board. This was listed among 15 Key Pain Points for Women at Sea in a report published last month by the All Aboard Alliance.

Participants in SIRC’s research said they typically packed and took on board a supply of sanitary products for the duration of their employment contract at sea as they had limited opportunity to buy new supplies, making their luggage bulky.

However, when contracts can be extended unexpectedly or repatriation delayed, this can leave women on board with insufficient supplies for their periods. Sanitary products are not always available at port welfare centers, and shore leave may not even be granted or a fast turnaround in port may make a trip to a local shop impossible.

Moreover, period poverty is an issue around the world, and some women may not be able to afford to bring their own supply of sanitary products on board, especially when large quantities are needed for long voyages.

In a male-dominated shipboard environment where topics like menstruation can be considered taboo, women may also feel uncomfortable voicing their needs or concerns with male colleagues.

If you can’t go ashore you have to ask somebody for help which is even worse.

… said a woman seafarer on Port-Based Welfare Needs of Women Seafarers

One woman seafarer contacted ISWAN’s SeafarerHelp helpline to ask for help ordering some personal items including sanitary products, because she was the only woman on board and didn’t feel able to ask the male port agent. The helpline officer contacted the local seafarers’ center who organized for a female volunteer to bring the items on board discretely during a ship visit the next day.

SIRC’s report concluded that the lack of provision for sanitary products and their disposal is a major source of additional stress and anxiety for women seafarers. However, there are a number of solutions to the issues women seafarers are facing. Menstrual products should be made readily available to women seafarers on board all vessels and in seafarers’ centers/port shops worldwide.

The means of disposing of sanitary waste should be introduced on board all vessels, and shipping companies and manning agents could develop and implement policies on sanitary waste to ensure the disposal process is no longer a problem. Educating crew would also normalize and break the taboo around menstruation.

No woman should be stigmatized, excluded or discriminated against simply because she menstruates, and the maritime sector has a responsibility to ensure this is true for all the women working at sea worldwide.

To remind, The Seafarers’ Charity recently announced funding for a new service aimed at supporting women seafarers who have experienced sexual trauma while working at sea.

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