Women Seafarers’ Health Needs – supplies of sanitary products on board

July 15, 2015
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A health survey of nearly 600 women seafarers conducted by IMHA, ISWAN, ITF & SHS* has highlighted a continued issue with access to sanitary bins on board. This was documented as a serious concern for women seafarers over ten years ago by the International Labour Organization (ILO,2003) and yet 40% of survey respondents this year still lack access to a sanitary bin on board. That figure is even higher for women working on tankers where only 27% of respondents have access, or for those working on cargo ships where only 38% do. Nearly 85% of survey participants working on cruise ships do have access to a sanitary bin which is still disappointing considering there are many more women working in this sector than any other, and because cruise lines are likely to have a solution in place for their female passengers.

A private and hygienic disposal method on board all vessels could greatly help to alleviate the unnecessary anxiety and humiliation felt by many women seafarers during menstruation. According to the latest ILO figures (2003), 1-2% of the seafaring population are women, and around 94% of them are working on passenger ships. The few who work on other vessels are likely to be the only female on board and often have to ask their male colleagues about how to dispose of sanitary items which can be embarrassing and uncomfortable. Here are some comments from survey participants which illustrate this:

These [sanitary bins] are rarely available and it's embarrassing to mention (Offshore)

Only [given] sanitary bag after request (Cruise ship)

Disposal is also a real issue - there is no advice or guidance at all on which segregated garbage bin to put them in. It's a taboo subject and yet every female animal in the world has periods (Tanker)

Biggest issue I have faced whilst working at sea. In no other job would a female employee be faced with such a ridiculous concern as to how to dispose of sanitary products. Passing said products to the almost undoubtedly male fourth engineer for disposal in the incinerator has been suggested by some Masters, other suggestions have been to just dispose of in plastic or paper waste bins. This is also a concern as on many occasions during lifting operations where garbage is being landed ashore the garbage has lost containment and spilled on to deck, should sanitary products be part of the garbage that was to be spilled, as the only female on board most ships I work on, it would no doubt be a humiliating experience. In this day and age this should no longer be an issue (Tanker)

I don't really know where I should throw away women stuff (Cargo)

Can't flush sanitary products and no bins specified. Highly recommend this change to accommodate women on onboard (Tanker)

Women who are not given instructions on where to dispose sanitary items risk further humiliation if they mistakenly put products down the toilet and cause a blockage which is then dealt with by a male colleague.

A number of survey respondents also commented on their limited access to sanitary products on board, pointing out that it can be difficult to carry a large enough supply for a long contract. However, this seems to be the only option for many who have no way of purchasing items in port because they can't leave the ship or because they're not available for purchase. This issue was also observed in the 2003 ILO study of women seafarers which noted how even cruise ship workers can find it difficult to get hold of supplies because of having to rely on shops in passenger areas which may not always be available during rest times.

The project group responsible for the survey plans to work collaboratively with welfare organisations, shipping companies, ports, unions and government agencies to make long term improvements in these areas. The full analysis report is due to be widely circulated within the next few weeks and it raises several other health issues faced by women seafarers.

To make sure you receive the report, you can sign up to ISWAN's mailing list here, or contact Caitlin Vaughan if you have any questions about the research. Visit here for some background to the research.

*International Maritime Health Association; International Seafarers’ Welfare & Assistance Network; International Transport Workers’ Federation and the Seafarers Hospital Society

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