14 October 2021

London. UK. The Lloyds List article ‘Maersk suspends crew after rape allegation involving cadet’ has rightly challenged the current narrative and stigmas around reporting sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and intimidation of young seafarers set against a background of apparent industry indifference reflecting a collective malaise on the topic.

Lloyds List is not the first maritime publication to challenge the otherwise closed conservative environment that perpetuates the corrosive narrative that “its a one off, that “what happens at sea, stays at sea”, and of “that was how it was in my time”. A recent hard-hitting editorial in gCaptain for ‘Midshipman X’ extensively set out the unacceptable nature of the issue.

The allegation that a US Merchant Marine Academy cadet was raped on a Maersk carrier vessel in 2019 has exposed a legacy issue which is seen as taboo and too difficult to discuss.

The Maritime Legal Aid & Advocacy (MLAA) website broke the story. “I Was a 19-Year-Old Virgin When I Was Raped by a 60+ Year-Old 1st Engineer Aboard a Maersk Ship During Sea Year. I Know Several Other Current USMMA Students Who Were Also Raped During Sea Year” and the associated blog has brought many such cases into the public domain.

In the UK, the charity Safer Waves is tackling the same problem.

Tragically, such media reporting is remonstrated by commentators, especially on social media, as tarnishing the future recruitment of seafarers and the wider industry reputation. In a sense, they passively condone criminal activities by ignoring the lasting and life-changing implications on the individual.

Such public and transparent reporting must therefore not stop if effective remedy and fair remediation for abuse survivors is going to brought into the spotlight and addressed front-and-centre.

The lack of ability to officially report such incidents compounds a victim’s fear of being belittled, of not being believed, of being blacklisted, and thereby classed as a trouble-maker. The matter is further compounded by a collective industry ignorance and unwillingness of sector leaders to address, head on, the effects on the individual and their families.

Once again, impunity appears to be rife and accountability sorely lacking, though US lawmakers are now taking action.

HRAS Ghosted and Rebuffed

In February 2021, Human Rights at Sea tackled this topic and the surrounding narrative. It was ghosted, rebuffed, and those brave enough to come forward were isolated by the very people who had stated they would address the issue within industry circles.

To quote from Declan Bush’s article: “Joanne Rawley, a chief officer and board member of charity Human Rights at Sea, said she was “disgusted but not surprised” by the allegation and praised “those who are speaking out”.

Ms Rawley published an account earlier this year about sexism and discrimination against women at sea, but said none of the industry groups she approached would circulate it.

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

“Instead of standing with me and using my examples, it was quietly put to the side so those in power can continue to pretend everything is fine.”

A Fuller Response

That was not the whole story.

In a written response to Lloyds List on 12 October, HRAS stated: “The issue of addressing physical abuse of any seafarer is one that requires immediate action and is not to be shunned nor framed in any way, whatsoever, as a one-off case or a ‘too difficult’ subject. It goes to faithfully upholding fundamental human rights’ protections of the individual.

“When publishing the Human Rights at Sea case study in February 2021 on this precise matter, it was significantly notable that no-one within the shipping industry who was approached to help support its dissemination, and who professed to be representatives for gender and diversity in-sector were prepared to back the first-hand testimony and representations of abuse survivors.

“That was frankly a shameful exercise of those people’s positioning when they had the power and influence to bring the topic to the forefront. It would have cost nothing to support the issues being raised through HRAS, but instead it demonstrated a ruthlessness in pursuit of other influence agendas. And therein, lies a core problem in addressing effective and systemic long-term industry change towards victims of abuse.”

As HRAS stated in its 30 September 2021 opinion ‘World Maritime Day 2021: Bitter-Sweet and still failing to effectively tackle Impunity and Abuse at Sea

“History will be the judge.

History will leave little place to hide for those leaders who fail to act, or simply abrogate their responsibilities in a passive non-confrontational manner as their pension pot steadily grows and retirement looms in their second home, most probably looking out to sea.”

Victims of sexual assault or harassment can contact Safer Waves or email its confidential and anonymous service at support@saferwaves.com.


Diversity & Inclusion. A Maritime Professional’s Reality Check in 2021. 8 February 2021