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Sanitation: breaking down the barriers at sea

15 March 2021

Stocking feminine hygiene products and having proper procedures for their disposal is an easy way to create a more welcoming environment for women onboard, writes Nautilus head of strategy Debbie Cavaldoro.

Over the past five years there has been much research into how to attract and retain more women in the maritime industry. Nautilus research has found that there is still a need to get the basics right.

When asked for their experience of access to feminine hygiene products and suitable disposal arrangements while working at sea, female Nautilus members described how these issues continue to create barriers they have to overcome individually.

Member experiences were gathered as part of the Union's response to a UK government call for evidence on toilet and sanitary provision for men and women. The Union's submission noted that 'a work environment failing to adequately cater to women's sanitation needs presents a barrier to their employment in a male-dominated industry.

'Access to decent sanitary facilities for maritime professionals is a gender-sensitive issue which affects women onboard, can perpetuate gender stereotypes and draws unwanted attention to female crew.'

Among the stories shared, one member recalled their horror when realising that the bosun would sift through the garbage from her cabin to sort out what could be incinerated. 'A health hazard to say the least,' she said.

A member remarked it was simply a 'bit embarrassing' having to ask what to do with sanitary products on every new ship, especially when working with cultures that already had poor attitudes to women seafarers.

Another member added: 'I was once told to put [female hygiene products] in the plastics bin to which I said no!', whilst another commented that she felt she had been 'judged' by the rest of the crew simply because she had periods.

Some female members found the issue easy to resolve for themselves but had stories about the struggles of fellow female seafarers, including one who would 'store their used towels and tampons and take them home again', and one who would 'sneak out to the poop deck at night and throw them over the wall'.

Proper procedures needed

These comments all highlight the lack of pre-agreed procedures for the disposal of feminine products. Females onboard ships is not a new concept, but female seafarers are having to devise their own solutions because their needs have been overlooked.

Seafarers are well known for being resilient, and some of the female seafarers said that they packed feminine hygiene products in their personal luggage or used contraceptives like the pill or an implant to block periods while at sea. It may be that this resourcefulness and female seafarers' unwillingness to draw further attention to themselves has allowed these issues to be overlooked in the regulations and not addressed for the benefit of all women at sea.

'I was at sea for 12 years,' said one member. 'I always took sufficient stock with me, as I did shampoo and body wash and moisturiser (unlike a guy I do not think that a bar of lux soap is good enough for everything).'

'I had to ask for sanitary bins to be provided in the crew toilet on the UK ferries I work on,' one member said. 'As Chief Officer I used to use the passenger facilities, but as Captain I can't leave the bridge, so I had to ask for bins to be put in. A little embarrassing, but they were quickly supplied, just seems no one had thought of it.'

One member said that she once joined a vessel where two female cadets had already been onboard for two months. When she asked them what they did with their sanitary waste the answer was 'nothing, they're still in the bin'.

'Procedures for disposal is essential to avoid these situations,' she added.

It was clear from the responses that female seafarers wanted more support to deal with carrying feminine hygiene products onboard and that a simple solution could be for ships' lockers to include feminine hygiene products.

As one member commented: 'Whilst it is common practice for ships to carry a small number of products for purchase by the crew such as toothpaste/razor blades, it is rare for ships to carry female sanitary products.'

'For years I have questioned why there are no sanitary products onboard,' another said. '[There are] no pregnancy tests and no morning after pill, whereas condoms are freely available.'

One member said that the need to carry provisions onboard would help to break down barriers and stop women from having to explain why they need to urgently go ashore.

Another added: 'We had no sanitary products available onboard so I made a point of always leaving my remaining sanitary products behind because I usually packed them excessively out of fear.'

Mandatory carrying of female sanitary products is particularly important for seafarers working deep sea: 'I feel as though sanitary products should be mandatory onboard to cover deep sea crossings,' one member said. 'We aren't asking for free products, we are asking for emergency products. There should be a procedure for the disposal at sea to be contained within SMS or MGN notices.'

Another member added: 'I hate having to ask. I don't tell my friends what point I'm at in my cycle, why should I have to discuss it with colleagues I barely know?'

One member noted that feminine hygiene products are not included as a product in the International Ship Suppliers Association catalogue for onboard stores. 'Something that should be petitioned for,' she added.

'I've never had access to sanitary facilities on any cargo ship.'

Covid-19: enough is enough?

The Covid-19 pandemic and resulting crew change crisis has brought the issue of female seafarers having to carry sufficient hygiene products with them to the fore. With tours being extended without notice and shore leave almost completely banned, some women have had to raise the issue more prominently.

Researchers from Solent University, in partnership with Nautilus International and the Merchant Navy Welfare Board, have been conducting a study of the impact of Covid-19 on British seafarers.

While questions related to sanitary provisions were not directly asked, some female respondents spontaneously commented on the subject. They said that because of delayed repatriation they had been left with inadequate sanitary provisions to last for the prolonged tour of duty.

This issue has been further exacerbated by the inability to take shore leave and purchase sanitary provisions.

One female seafarer said sanitary products had to be brought onboard via an agent.

The crew change crisis has highlighted many of the cracks that are glossed over in campaigns to attract more young people to go to sea; however, access to hygiene products is one issue which could easily be resolved with just a little thought and effort from those ashore.


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