Sexual violence, including harassment and assault, is a traumatic matter and is recognised as a crime across the globe, yet victims often struggle to get justice. Why? 

In a recent interview with TradeWinds, our CEO, David Hammond, addressed the issue of seafarers' vulnerability to sexual violence in an industry where offenders go unpunished. 

“There can be no dark corners and hiding places that allow impunity to flourish due to a lack of preventative awareness, education or training, or avoidance of immediate intervention when incidents occur,” said David. 

So, how do you protect seafarers from sexual assault and harassment if justice systems provide so little accountability?

Fighting against the tide

Sexual harassment is a pervasive problem in every workplace, and the maritime industry is no exception. The unique characteristics of life at sea make the issue of sexual violence even harder to tackle.  

Imagine being a victim of harassment or abuse aboard a ship, far away from your loved ones, with no access to the same services as victims of sexual assault ashore, such as forensic medical examinations, access to the police, or the chance to press charges.

Maritime companies have been known to ignore reports of sexual misconduct or, worse, allow offenders to remain on board while victims are relocated to other vessels or, in some cases, dismissed. 

The trauma of sexual harassment can be overwhelming, often prompting victims to suffer in silence. Those who are forced to continue working alongside their abuser may find the situation unbearable. 

The justice gap 

Justice in all sexual violence cases is hard to come by. Less than 2 in 100 cases of rape on land reported to the UK police in 2022 resulted in a charge. Charging rates around the world are similarly poor. 

This means that if a person is raped on land in the UK, there is less than a 2% chance that the perpetrator will be charged. If a person is raped at sea, that rate decreases close to zero. 

States take action 

Some states have made efforts to close the justice gap that exists for victims of sexual violence at sea. 

In 2021 Maritime Legal Aid & Advocacy published a blog post by Hope Hicks which detailed her horrific account of sexual abuse whilst serving as a cadet aboard a Maersk ship. Hope's bravery set off a wave of change around maritime safety issues and triggered the USA and other states to tighten their existing laws and implement new legislation to address the prevalence of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the industry.

The USA began work on the Safer Seas Act, which creates obligations on companies to report sexual violence with penalties if they don’t, as well as creating requirements for surveillance systems and empowering the US Coast Guard to issue regulations of how much alcohol may be consumed by people working at sea. The provisions of the Act were signed into law in 2023, and we will monitor its implementation and impact closely. 

Whilst it is good that states like the USA are tightening up their provisions, sexual assault, harassment, and gender-based violence are not new crimes, and global laws and policies have existed for many years to safeguard victims. The problem is they are frequently ignored. Flag states, where companies register their ships, unfortunately, often prioritise financial gain over seafarers' welfare. 

Confronting the narrative

Human Rights at Sea (HRAS) has confronted the sexual abuse narrative, saturating the maritime industry for several years. 

In 2021, HRAS advisory board member Joanne Rawley published "We are ALL someone’s Daughter. We chose to be Seafarers." after experiencing discrimination and harassment throughout her career in maritime. 

“Not a week goes by without a seafarer contacting me regarding harassment or assault,” Joanne said. “I was advised my case study was ‘too negative’ to be widely publicised as it may affect recruitment to the industry."

In retaliation for supporting and publishing Joanne's account, HRAS was ghosted and overlooked, and those brave enough to come forward were isolated by the people who had stated they would address the issue within industry circles.

The good fight

While it's comforting that international efforts are now being made to address the issues of sexual harassment at sea, and more victims are bravely coming forward, there remains a huge gap in the lack of justice. 

Martyn Illingworth, Human Rights at Sea, Head of Operations, said: "Everyone deserves to work in an environment free from sexual harassment and violence. It is time to put an end to the use of international waters as a safe haven for perpetrators of such behavior."

Human Rights at Sea remains committed to challenging and exposing coastal, port, and flag states, companies, and individuals who fail to protect individuals equally or adequately. 

We will continue to support survivors to help them achieve justice, and we won't stop until the maritime industry stops just talking, starts recognising its legal responsibilities and takes action.  

Together, we can create a safer and more supportive environment for seafarers and bring justice to the seas. 

You can find out more about our equalities programme here

Support: UK-based charity Safer Waves supports merchant seafarers who have experienced sexual assault, sexual harassment or gender discrimination on board. To find out more, click here.

Contact: If you have any questions, please write to us at

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