On 26 August, Lieutenant Commander Zimasa Mabela took command of the SAS Umhloti, a South African Navy Mine Counter Measure Vessel. In doing so, she became the first woman to take charge of a South African naval ship.

During 2015, the need to advance women’s role in maritime activities has become a subject of unprecedented awareness and interest. And for good reason. The International Transport Workers’ Federation estimates that only 2% of the world’s maritime workforce is made up of women.

It is time to change this statistic by enhancing opportunities for women to be educated and gain experience in maritime activities. Equally important is changing the culture in the maritime sector to reduce the prejudices women encounter on a daily basis. Fortunately, there is evidence that efforts to do so are yielding results, even though building experience among women in the sector is no easy task.

Shipping and seafaring, from the time people first put to sea, has become increasingly diverse in terms of race, class and nationality. Sailors work for a mix of individual owners and companies that reflect this intricate and globalised industry that the world economy depends on. However, the diversity of the motley crew of global seafarers has yet to take on a visible mixture of men and women – as many seafaring occupations remaining the preserve of men.

The long interaction of (mostly) men and the sea has also created significant cultural barriers to the participation of women in seafaring. This is, however, no excuse for the continued exclusion of women, or for failing to support the many women who have pushed past out-dated gender norms and made great strides in improving the participation of women in maritime.

The African Union (AU) is leading the way on the continent, as seen in the two events it hosted this year – one in Luanda, Angola in March on African Maritime Women: Towards Africa’s Blue Economy, and another in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in July. Moreover, the theme of the AU summit in January was Women Empowerment in Africa, as a step towards achieving the goals of the AU’s Agenda 2063. Agenda 2063 says that ‘Africa’s … ocean economy, which is three times the size of its landmass, shall be a major contributor to continental transformation and growth.’

AU Commission Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has also made a number of important statements calling for greater participation of women in maritime industries, especially in the development of Africa’s Blue Economy. If achieved, this will see increasing interest in African countries that are developing maritime industries. That could translate into economic benefit from maritime resources for Africa as well as opportunities in fields such as ship ownership, fishing, manufacturing and shipbuilding, and natural resource extraction.

Dlamini-Zuma has suggested that ‘Women have come together and … those who work in the industry … want to see how they can be entrepreneurs in the industry.’

This statement boosts long-standing goals to increase the participation of women in maritime, such as those expressed by the International Maritime Organisation, the UN’s maritime agency.

A looming problem will be how the role and contribution of women in maritime development is recognised and framed. If women are to be fully included in the maritime industry, discussions cannot be limited to participation in one or two areas alone such as environmental work, or entrepreneurship such as ship ownership. Creating a community of experienced women in maritime occupations needs to take place at several levels and in various sectors of the industry.

Having women in positions of authority is crucial, but that must not come at the expense of seafaring experience, education and training. This also applies to the safety and security sector such as navies, coastguards and maritime authorities.

In the industry, the view is that it’s easier to call for change on the economic or entrepreneurship side – and it is here that existing female participation is largely observed. However, women’s entry into other sectors, especially pertaining to security, must not be overlooked.

Addressing this gap will also improve the security of women at sea. Arevealing case is that of Akhona Geveza, a 19-year-old South African cadet found drowned off Croatia in 2010. Local authorities controversially declared her death a suicide. Geveza had, the day before she died, reported to the captain that she was raped by one of the officers. The Croatian authorities’ finding has never been fully accepted, and it remains an unresolved topic of debate to this day.

Efforts to ensure safety and support for female seafarers have included the South African Maritime Safety Authority’s ‘Sisters of the Sea’ – an important initiative to enable the sharing of experience and support.

Such projects now require invigoration and expansion. Infrastructure changes that will ensure women’s physical security on board ships are also needed. This includes separate toilets, changing and sleeping facilities and access to personal hygiene products.

Another encouraging sign is the rise in numbers of women receiving education and training required for careers such as marine piloting, which entails steering ships into ports and harbours. But numbers alone only tell part of the story. Women who put to sea must gain multi-level and multi-sector experience, such as executive or engineering positions, rather than being limited to entry or low paid occupations.

For instance, only 15 of the 70 marine pilots in South Africa are female – but this is a good basis upon which to build. Elsewhere the numbers have yet to reach this level. Elizabeth Marami is Kenya’s first female marine pilotand while the AU lauded this accomplishment when marking the Day and Decade of Africa’s Seas and Oceans in Addis Ababa in July, she remains for now Kenya’s only woman in this profession.

Sustained attention and action at the level of the AU, Regional Economic Communities and national governments, in partnership with African and global maritime education institutions, is needed. The goal must be to transform the industry so that isolated stories of success coalesce into an inclusive and gender balanced maritime domain.

This article is published in collaboration with ISS Africa. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Timothy Walker, Researcher, Conflict Management and Peacebuilding division, ISS Pretoria

Image: A container ship departs Burrard Inlet in Vancouver, British Columbia. REUTERS/Andy Clark