Ending stigma and tackling issues around menstruation at sea

May 26, 2023
Menstrual Hygiene Day 2023

ISWAN has partnered with the official Menstrual Hygiene Day campaign to end the stigma surrounding menstruation and raise awareness of the challenges women* seafarers face when working on board.

Women are a minority in the seafaring workforce, particularly in commercial shipping. Many facilities and welfare provision both on board ship and in ports were designed primarily for male seafarers and may not always meet the needs of women. The provision and disposal of menstrual products is a key example of this tendency.

A new research report published on International Women’s Day in March shone a spotlight on the welfare needs of women working on cargo ships. Port-Based Welfare Needs of Women Seafarers, by the Seafarers International Research Centre (SIRC) at Cardiff University and funded by The Seafarers’ Charity, reported that none of the 30 women interviewed had access to an appropriate facility for the hygienic disposal of sanitary products on board, even in companies where women had a long-established, albeit minority, presence. At best, bins were provided without any provision for emptying or seafarers were told to dispose of sanitary waste in with plastic waste on board, causing them embarrassment and sometimes humiliation.

‘If we are at long voyage they separate the garbage, and that makes me very conscious because what if they might see my sanitary napkins and then they might laugh at me’

Woman seafarer (Port-Based Welfare Needs of Women Seafarers, SIRC 2023)

This may be more of a problem in certain parts of the maritime sector. The 2015 Women Seafarers' Health and Welfare Survey by ISWAN, the International Maritime Health Association (IMHA), the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and the Seafarers Hospital Society (SHS) found that access was usual in the cruise and ferry industries (85%, 63%) but much lower elsewhere, especially on tankers (27%). Data on the yachting industry is not readily available (although Yachts Mermaids hosted an insightful two-part radio show on Yachting International Radio on breaking the taboo about menstruation – watch it here: Part 1 / Part 2).

Another source of stress for women seafarers is the lack of provision of menstrual products (sanitary towels, tampons, etc.) on board. This was listed among 15 Key Pain Points for Women at Sea in a report published last month by the All Aboard Alliance, which interviewed 115 women seafarers from all ranks and geographies serving onboard vessels from across the global maritime industry.

Participants in SIRC’s research said they typically packed and took on board a supply of sanitary products for the duration of their employment contract at sea as they had limited opportunity to buy new supplies, making their luggage bulky.

‘…we never had sanitary supplies [on board], we were told at college to take everything you need for 4 months, 6 months’

Woman seafarer (Port-Based Welfare Needs of Women Seafarers, SIRC 2023)

However, when contracts can be extended unexpectedly or repatriation delayed, this can leave women on board with insufficient supplies for their periods. Sanitary products are not always available at port welfare centres, and shore leave may not even be granted or a fast turnaround in port may make a trip to a local shop impossible. Moreover, period poverty is an issue around the world, and some women may not be able to afford to bring their own supply of sanitary products on board, especially when large quantities are needed for long voyages.

In a male-dominated shipboard environment where topics like menstruation can be considered taboo, women may also feel uncomfortable voicing their needs or concerns with male colleagues.

‘If you ran out of [sanitary napkins], you need to rush to some malls somewhere to just you know take off something from the shelves. […] If you can’t go ashore you have to ask somebody for help which is even worse. Because this is a guy who doesn’t understand anything about sanitary napkins, buying sanitary napkins. There is not many who will help you with that’

Woman seafarer (Port-Based Welfare Needs of Women Seafarers, SIRC 2023)

One woman seafarer contacted ISWAN’s SeafarerHelp helpline to ask for help ordering some personal items including sanitary products, because she was the only woman on board and didn’t feel able to ask the male port agent. The helpline officer contacted the local seafarers’ centre who organised for a female volunteer to bring the items on board discretely during a ship visit the next day.

SIRC’s report concluded that the lack of provision for sanitary products and their disposal is a major source of additional stress and anxiety for women seafarers. However, there are a number of solutions to the issues women seafarers are facing. Menstrual products should be made readily available to women seafarers on board all vessels and in seafarers’ centres/port shops worldwide. The means of disposing of sanitary waste should be introduced on board all vessels, and shipping companies and manning agents could develop and implement policies on sanitary waste to ensure the disposal process is no longer a problem. Educating crew would also normalise and break the taboo around menstruation.

No woman should be stigmatised, excluded or discriminated against simply because she menstruates, and the maritime sector has a responsibility to ensure this is true for all the women working at sea worldwide.

*We recognise that not everyone who menstruates identifies as a woman and that not all women menstruate.

Stay up to date with ISWAN's monthly email newsletter

We are grateful to our main funders for their continued support: