EXPOSED | Female Seafarers Cry Out: All Our Bosses Do Is Use Us For Sex

After a two-hour interview with the middle-aged dark-complexioned man in his office on VI Lagos, Sarah Abiodun, a marine engineer, thought she had secured a job with the shipping company.

“He told me I performed excellently. I felt good. I also knew I did. I was prepared for the interview. I have what any shipping company could be looking for. I have the needed quality, skill, certification to excel on the job,” she said.

But within just few minutes after the interview, her optimism turned sour. She would later learn that getting a job at the company was not just about interview, but bedroom things...

She said, “He said I needed to come and spend one weekend with him at a hotel in Lekki. I asked him what that was all about. He replied, ‘Don’t tell me you don’t know what I’m asking for. You are not a kid. You have all it takes to work here.’ I was heartbroken. I knew I had lost the job right there because I wouldn’t sleep with a man to get any job in my life.”

Abiodun left sorrowfully that day, but few days later, she got another call for an interview at a shipping firm in Apapa, where there are a number of ports and terminals operated by the Nigerian Ports Authority and commercial offices of many shipping, clearing and transportation companies.

Surprisingly, she said, “After the interview, my interviewer wanted us to have s*x right there in his office. I had to take to my heels immediately.”

Since then, Abiodun, trained at Arab Academy for Science and Technology and Maritime Transport, Alexandria, Egypt, has been worried whether she would be able to practise her profession.

“They are always asking for s*x before they would employ me and I’m tired. I have friends who are experiencing the same thing,” she lamented.

Apart from s*xual harassment, Abiodun said she had also been facing gender discrimination by some shipping companies who said they wouldn’t employ her because she is a woman.

She said, “Other companies I’ve applied to, they told me it was their policy not to employ women. This gender discrimination started when I was in school. Some lecturers treated us as equals to men. However, I was surprised that while doing some courses and certifications, some lecturers asked us what we women were doing in the academy.

“But the question that usually popped in my mind was why did they admit us in the first place? Didn’t they see that we were women? While going for job interviews, I am surprised that this question always comes up. Why do shipping firms discriminate against us? If I don’t work, my certificate will expire in January 2017 and I have to renew it. But how can I renew it when I have not yet started working and don’t have money?”

Abiodun is even more bothered because even though she has not yet started working, she has started facing s*xual harassment and gender discrimination.

“What will now happen when I finally secure a job?” she asked.

Lizzy Akunna, a fair-complexioned ship captain, has gone through this route before. In 2009 when she was a deck cadet and worked longer and harder than her male colleagues, it wasn’t because she liked it. It was a way of being punished for refusing to date her male boss on-board.

She said, “I’ve experienced s*xual harassment on-board. It is not something to wish for, but it’s something you cannot escape. In 2009 when I experienced it, I resisted it. To punish me, my boss who asked me out gave me more work to do. I was supposed to finish work by 4am daily, but he would extend it by two hours to make me work longer. But I wouldn’t complain.

I did all he asked. I could not report to the ship captain because he too was interested in me. I told my female colleagues and they encouraged me not to succumb to the pressure. If I wanted to date my captain or any other boss, I could have, but I would lose my virtue and wouldn’t be able to use my initiatives again.

“Imagine dating a boss, he would not want to give me work to do and I would just be idle on-board, but in the long run, I would not improve. When I’m on-board, I’m not here to look for men.”

Through hard work without sleeping with any boss, she is now a ship captain. 
Akunna said if she had not stood her ground, she would not have been able to be who she is today.

She said, “When I was looking for job, among all the applicants, only two of us were females. The company officials looked at us annoyingly as if we were dumbheads. One of them even asked us, ‘Are you sure you’re going to pass this interview?’ But we proved them wrong.

“Both of us ladies were the best. Up till now, we ladies do more to prove them wrong. When I was a cadet, they used me. I worked very hard. When some people see me today, they think I’m a pampered girl because of the way I look, but if you see my hands, you will know that it’s not easy. I carried hammer and all sorts of tools. There is no tool I cannot use.”

Asked how life on the sea has been, Akunna said, “Not easy, but when you do what you love, it’s easy. My family can’t sometimes reach me because when I’m on the sea, there might not be network to make or receive calls. But I have a supportive family who understands what it’s like to pursue your passion.”

This is also what has kept Uche Okocha, a ship captain, going in the face of s*xual harassment and gender discrimination since 11 years ago when she started her career.

She said, “My job deals with the movement of cargo and people from place to place and the maintenance of ship. I’ve been at sea since 2005 and I started my career with a company called Genesis Worldwide. I can say that was the only company that was willing to accept female seafarers then. In fact, the owner of the company was passionate about getting women employed as long as they’re qualified. He used to encourage us and monitor us to excel just like men.

“I searched for jobs at almost all the shipping firms at Apapa. Some of the companies told us outright that they could not employ women because of petty reasons. They said women were troublesome. They said they didn’t want women problems. Some said there were no facilities on board their vessels for women, which is true. There are some vessels which are small and have no facilities to cater for women needs."

45-year-old Stella Okponya, one of the first female captains in the country who has been on the job for 20 years, says s*xual harassment and intimidation by male colleagues are not strange to her.

She said, “Yes, you cannot rule it out. Men ask us out, but it depends on the lady seafarer to know what she wants. There are some men who cannot see somebody in skirt. They must chase her. There was an experience I went through when I was starting my career. There was a particular expatriate captain who said I was rude because I didn’t succumb to him sleeping with me.

He tried to cook up allegations that I was lazy, stubborn and didn’t listen to instructions. Meanwhile, my hard work was there for everyone to see. Eventually, his allegations were thrown out.”

If NIMASA that supervises the sector had done a lot, perhaps Sherifat Jimba, 27, would have been able to secure a job, but she has yet to due to find any gender discrimination.

While studying in Egypt, she was employed as a deck cadet at a shipping firm, but since returning to Nigeria, most companies she applied to said they would not employ a woman.

“They said they were not looking for women seafarers. Some said the timing is wrong due to pirate attacks.. Meanwhile, my certificate will expire next year. With this discrimination, how will I pursue my passion?” she asked.

For the ladies seafarers who have been able to overcome this challenge and are now employed, working on-board with male colleagues is yet another challenge.
But spokesperson for NIMASA, Mrs. Lami Tumaka, said women seafarers experiencing any form of s*xual harassment and gender discrimination should not hesitate to report to the agency.

“We already have policies guarding against these practices and they are being effected.”