Rescue NGOs in the Mediterranean fight to increase the presence of women in maritime rescue | International

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The first woman in history to become captain did so in 1935. She was the 27-year-old Ivanovna Shchetinina, a native of Vladivostok (Russia), and she had begun her career as a common sailor to end up at the helm of ocean liners and participating in military operations during World War II. Also at that time, among sailors it was said that women should not be on ships because they brought bad luck. Almost 100 years later, in 2023, Anabel Montes, 28, has decided to take a professional break. For the last eight years she has lived dedicated to the rescue of migrants at sea and has been responsible for search and rescue in the Geo Barents, the flagship of Doctors Without Borders. And now that she has finished, Maitane Carnero begins. It is not that she is a novice: this 32-year-old Basque has accumulated four years of rescue missions with the NGO Open Arms in the central Mediterranean. She started out as a lifeguard, she trained to be a sailor and now she has made her debut as a patron in the Astralthe sailboat of the Spanish humanitarian organization.

The The experiences of Montes and Carnero are an example of how women are making their way in the field of humanitarian rescue at sea, made up of NGOs that are dedicated to rescuing migrants who are left adrift when they try to reach European coasts. In the maritime sector, women account for 2% of the 1.2 million sailors and other jobs in crews, and 94% of them are on cruise ships, according to the latest study by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). . In the case of public search and rescue agencies, or SAR for its acronym in English, 10% of the staff is female, but distributed among all the professions that are included in this field, such as nursing or communication, where their presence is usual.

The sailors are advancing by forced steps in a sector that is precisely facing a personnel crisis due to harsh working conditions. And its empowerment benefits those who work in the maritime community, according to the IMO Secretary General, Kitack Lim, after the publication of the latest report, which came to light on May 18, 2021, coinciding with the first International Day of Women in the Maritime Field.

Anabel Montes, head of search and rescue operations on the Geo Barents ship of Doctors Without Borders.Mahka Eslami / MSF (Mahka Eslami / MSF)

In 2016, it was very difficult for Anabel Montes to find other women in this job. “I am not even able to remember how many missions I did in which there was a companion who was a lifeguard or patron; she was always alone, ”she recalls. That same year, Kathrin Schmidt, former head of operations on the ship, made her debut. iuventa and currently in the louise michel, both vessels belonging to humanitarian organizations. Montes also remembers that there were very few, and he assures that taking a person out of the sea was seen as something exclusively for men. “They are seen as heroes who protect others. The rescue is quite connected to masculinity, ”he explains by video call.

Humanitarian organizations insist that they are now trying to achieve parity in their teams. "In this crew we are half and we are in leadership positions," says the skipper Carnero from the bow of the Astral, during a technical stop in the port of Lampedusa at the beginning of May. Indeed: on their 98th mission, just completed, four men and four women were sailing: a nurse, a lifeguard, the patron (Carnero) and the search and rescue manager. Above the last two, only the captain had more authority.

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Other organizations are also balancing the scales. At Resqship, a German NGO, they have at least two or three women, among them doctors, communication coordinators or sailors. This is not the case with skipper positions because it is men who usually obtain nautical licenses. “You can be a chief of mission with different skills on your resume, but you can't improvise being a captain. You need to have dedicated your life to it”, Jasmine Iozzelli, rescuer and head of operations at this NGO and doctoral student in Anthropology, analyzes by phone.

Schmidt and Eva Galy, current sailor on the humanity 1, believe that positive discrimination actions to reduce inequality are necessary. However, Schmidt advocates more "blind" selection, without knowing the name, gender or age of the candidates. “We are not doing ourselves a favor if we neglect professional competence and experience.” In the end, for her, what makes the difference when hiring is someone who is aware of gender roles and avoids reproducing patriarchal power dynamics. Galy completes: “We want to be more, so it seems good to me to seek more balance. But I hope one day we won't have to."

Impostor syndrome and sexual discrimination

One of the tasks that Montes carried out during his years in humanitarian maritime rescue was to select personnel. “There were 40 men applying for jobs and six women,” she says. “I saw that many underestimated themselves; there is a constant justification that I have not seen on the other side, the masculine. They have imposter syndrome like a piano." This insecurity is perceived in the responses to another survey carried out on 1,655 people and published in 2021 by the International Maritime Rescue Federation (IMRF) within its initiative #WomeninSAR (Women in maritime rescue). Several participants recognized that they needed to prove themselves better than their male counterparts in order to be accepted. "I have had to leave my horns to be respected," says Montes.

The conclusions of the IMRF report point to sexism in the sector as something of "significant" concern. “While the men are deployed in potentially dangerous situations, they are in charge of training the staff. Therefore, they possess the necessary knowledge to carry out such operations”, says the study. Schmidt says that, at first, they didn't take her seriously. And he recounts an occasion when he was leading an operation on a rescue boat: “A member of my organization was on the phone with me. There was a moment when he asked me to communicate with the boss because he had a technical question. He thought I couldn't answer him."

Eva Galy, sailor of the rescue ship 'Humanity 1', from the NGO SOS Humanity.
Eva Galy, sailor of the rescue ship 'Humanity 1', from the NGO SOS Humanity.Johanna Pohl/SOS Humanity

Gender discrimination can lead to undervaluing their abilities and generate frustration. “They don't tell you directly that you can't do something, it's never that obvious, but that's exactly how it is. If there is a man and a woman and they both have a heavy task on their hands, he will tell her that she is in charge”, exemplifies Iozzelli.

No toilets or tampons

Discrimination sometimes comes from outside organizations. Schmidt faced incredulous machismo from Italian authorities when her crew and she were detained in 2017 aboard the iuventa, accused of favoring irregular migration. Officers were searching for the man in charge, but what they found was an all-female crew. “They asked the captain who she received orders from. She pointed at me, but the agents were not satisfied with that answer and so they wanted to talk to the engineer, ”she narrates. When the Italians realized that there were no men, they had to make do.

Another more unconscious discrimination, but one that is present on a day-to-day basis, is the lack of services and equipment appropriate to their gender, such as toilets, intimate hygiene supplies and safety clothing. "We have to adapt to a world of men, designed by men for men," complained one of the respondents to the IMRF. It is a masculine world, where hierarchies are marked and where sailors remain isolated for months hundreds of miles from the mainland. It is what has been described as the perfect territory for impunity in cases of sexual harassment and abuse. Two navies opened Pandora's box precisely when they went to the United States courts less than a year ago. In the humanitarian sector, however, there are no known cases and the professionals surveyed also point out that, in general, they feel supported by their colleagues.

Anabel Montes is preparing to take a few months off in her native Asturias until she decides where to direct her steps. But Maitane Carnero prepares the next Open Arms mission. Kathrin Schmidt continues to work as Head of Operations at the louise michel. Eva Galy plans to continue at least another year as a sailor on the humanity 1 and Jasmine Iozzelli is deep into her PhD, but admits that she already spends more time in the water than on land. They all have challenges ahead, but they are always advancing along the path that a Soviet captain from Vladivostok decided to open 100 years ago and that does not seem to be closing.

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