The Hidden Sexual Harassment of Female Seafarers

A new report tells the story of seafarers from the Philippines, including one who said she kept her hair short and wore loose-fitting shirts just to look unappealing to men.
For illustrative purposes only. Photo: Pixabay

The popularization of the #MeToo movement in recent years has helped empower women to speak out against sexual harassment and abuse. But while the platform has led to fundamental changes in industries like entertainment, art, and sports, many communities continue to be overlooked. Like the male-dominated seafaring industry that thousands of Filipino women are a part of.

A report published by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in September found that most women in the industry have experienced some form of sexual harassment. Assistant Professor Lucia Tangi of the University of the Philippines conducted research on the topic for over 10 years, speaking to nearly 100 female seafarers. Through their stories, Tangi learned that no matter their position, every woman who works as a seafarer is vulnerable to sexual harassment.


Captain Jasmine, who was only identified with her first name, of the Association of Marine Officers and Seafarers’ Union of the Philippines (AMOSUP) shared her experience during an International Women’s Day event in 2019.

“When I first boarded a ship as a cadet, my father advised me to befriend the cook so I will never go hungry on board. So, I did follow his advice. But one night while I was asleep, the cook whom I trusted, tried to insert his finger between my legs, but I just kept quiet because I didn’t know what to do since I was only 17 years old then,” she said.

Seafaring in the Philippines dates as far back as the 1800s, during the Spanish colonial period when the country’s first maritime school was established. At the time, only men were allowed to enroll in the school. It only opened doors to women in 1993. They remain a minority today. According to the IDS report, in 2017, there were 17,101 female seafarers, 3.8 percent of the total 449,463 Filipino seafarers deployed that year. These women work and live in ships with mostly men for at least six months at a time. Without support and knowledge of how to file complaints, they have become vulnerable to sexual harassment and abuse.

Cases include supervisors who relentlessly made advances, even after the women clearly expressed disinterest. One marine engineer said she was invited to a cargo ship captain’s office only to be told, “There is something in you. I really like you.” To this, she responded, “Sir, I came on board to work and not to look for a boyfriend.” A female chief engineer also recounted how a chief mate had directly asked her how much she wanted in exchange for sex.


Physical forms of sexual harassment also take place at sea. At the International Women’s Day event, Captain Jasmine said that there was an incident wherein a female engineer’s colleague masturbated in front of her. When the female engineer took this to a higher-up, she was simply told, “What can you do? It’s a man’s world.”

The lack of stern action from management has encouraged a victim-blaming mindset, so much so that the women themselves go through great lengths just to avoid being harassed. Tangi met a female cadet who said she kept her hair short, wore loose-fitting shirts, seldom brushed her teeth, and did not shave her underarms, as a way to look unappealing to men.

Despite a Philippine law that aims to protect women from workplace sexual harassment, many survivors stay silent. The IDS report shows data from the Philippine Statistics Authority, indicating that the average number of sexual harassment reports made nationwide per year from 1999 to 2010 was only 65.

IDS reported that many female seafarers worry about the ridicule or even retaliation they may face from male colleagues if they were to file complaints. One woman shared that when she was a junior engineer, her chief engineer gave her a poor evaluation when she declined an invitation to his office.

AMOSUP, the marine officers and seafarers union, established its first women’s committee in 2018, which counts Captain Jasmine as one of three other female officers. AMOSUP Women now conducts forums to discuss solutions for the problems female seafarers face and acts as a contact for survivors of sexual harassment.

In its 36-year history, the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration has received only one formal complaint of sexual harassment from a seafarer. The woman reportedly had her underwear stolen by a fellow seafarer, but the case was dismissed as she pursued employment overseas.

Sexual harassment is not an offense punishable under the seafarers’ standard contract. Survivors can lodge complaints for “gross misbehavior” or “abuse of authority” if the perpetrator is an officer or supervisor. According to the report, first-time offenders for both offenses can receive a minimum punishment of one year’s suspension from overseas employment, while a third offense will result in immediate disqualification.

However, Tangi said that this is not enough. She called to include sexual harassment as a punishable offense within the standard contract, under its definition in the Philippines’ Anti-Sexual Harassment Act. This way, seafarers are protected and stakeholders are held accountable.