The International Maritime Organization (IMO), the United Nations organization responsible for safety and security at sea, has declared each 18 May the International Day for Women in Maritime. Women are increasingly engaged in the fishing and marine sector, which has historically been dominated by men.
Dr. Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry became the first woman to serve as president of the World Maritime University (WMU) when the IMO secretary-general appointed her to the position in 2015. Dr. Doumbia-Henry, an expert on international labor standards and safety at sea, was born in the Caribbean island nation of Dominica and began her academic career as a lecturer in law at the University of the West Indies in Barbados. She later worked at the Iran-US Claims Tribunal in The Hague before joining the International Labor Organization, where she held a variety of increasingly senior positions for almost 30 years.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What experiences have driven your interest in international law and the maritime sector?
Growing up in Dominica, the sea had a significant influence on my life. I have long been fascinated by the legal profession. I knew from an early age that I wanted to become a lawyer. My father was a Member of Parliament, and I was always curious about the legal documents being discussed. He was also an educator and willingly explained to me simple elements of his work.
As of 2021, women represent only 1.2% percent of the global seafarer workforce, with an unknown number of women engaged in the fishing industry. What are your thoughts on creating safe spaces for women in male-dominated maritime industries and supporting greater gender equity in maritime?
A sustainable maritime industry needs access to the full spectrum of talent, which means that we need to encourage more women to choose maritime careers. Gender equality is built into the International Labor Organization’s mandate, and the International Maritime Organization has been actively promoting gender equality and working with member States to implement steps towards equality at a national level. But while laws and policies are important, to protect female and male seafarers they need to be adopted across all organizations; a culture of gender equality onboard vessels is critical.
According to our research, progress in achieving greater gender equality in the maritime sector has been hindered by the longtime misplaced perception that women are not suitable for working on board ships.
What role can your university play in encouraging more women to choose a maritime career?
Education promotes equality and advances the full and effective participation and equal opportunities for women at all levels of decision-making, whether in political, economic, academic, business or public life. At the World Maritime University, we’re keenly focused on increasing women’s access to educational opportunities in the maritime sector, including at the postgraduate level, in order to advance their full participation in the maritime and ocean industries. We have a proactive recruitment strategy, and now more than 20% of our graduates are women, which is a substantial improvement since the 1990s.
Our female students are role models in the maritime industry, and they have the power to motivate younger generations to seek career opportunities. That makes WMU’s impact a significant one. We hope to see more donors sponsor women in their early- to midcareers to complete their postgraduate education at WMU.
Fishing is a dangerous profession. What measures can the international community take to mitigate risks posed to women in the fishing industry?
Fishing is certainly one of the world’s most dangerous professions, with many lives lost each year. While women occupy nearly half of the overall fisheries sector workforce, they tend to have limited leadership opportunities and are often more vulnerable to economic and social risks—such as gender-based violence that can arise from structural inequalities and harmful social norms in male-dominated societies.
There are multiple international agreements which could help strengthen safety: The International Labor Organization’s Work in Fishing Convention (WFC), and the International Maritime Organization’s International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCWS)—and the Cape Town Agreement. While these agreements don’t specifically relate to gender, their adoption and ratification could increase safety for all individuals on vessels. Implementation of the WFC and the STCWS are key steps toward making life at sea safer for everyone. Of the three, the first two have entered into force, and the Cape Town Agreement, which focuses on vessel safety standards, has yet to be ratified.
Women already play a vital role in the fishing sector, particularly in coastal and subsistence fisheries. But they don’t have a voice yet that’s commensurate with their contributions. What needs to happen for that to change?
Women will only gain due recognition of their socioeconomic contribution if gender is considered integral to the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of fishing and maritime policies and programmes. This may mean adapting legislation taking into account traditional practices and making them compatible with gender equality. Raising awareness, education and training are essential to effective implementation of such policies and guidelines.
What do you hope the future holds?
To ensure its own future, the industry must embrace gender equality. There are limitless opportunities for women within the maritime and ocean industries, and everyone has a role to play in supporting gender equality for a sustainable maritime and oceans future. We must choose to be bold! We must make gender equality a reality, today and not tomorrow.