Women play constructive role in Africa’s maritime landscape
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Women play constructive role in Africa’s maritime landscape

Addressing gender issues

While little of the insecurity at sea off Africa can probably be traced back to the involvement of women, the opposite is true as far as promoting security is concerned. Piracy syndicates, private security contractors, robberies at sea and attacks on vessels under the banner of oil piracy off Nigeria tend to reflect a male dominated image of maritime crime, responses and resultant insecurity.

By Francois Vrey: the Programme Coordinator at the Security Institute for Governance and Leadership in Africa at Stellenbosch University.

The scope of maritime threats and vulnerabilities off Africa is wide and includes elements of hybrid warfare at sea in the Gulf of Aden; piracy off Somalia and in the Gulf of Guinea; criminal syndicates smuggling immigrants from Libya across the Mediterranean, and foreign illegal and unreported fishing along the African coast with the Gulf of Guinea and further south a prominent fishing crimes landscape. Perceivably, these are male dominated maritime crime settings with little obvious evidence of female involvement.

Female pirates

The literature, however, reflects some history of female pirates. For example, Women and English Piracy: 1540-1720 Partners and Victims of Crime uncovers the role of woman in maritime plunder as pirates or spouses or through family connections, but largely within the English culture of the time.

A more popular view on notorious women in the piracy ambit points to China, Ireland, England, and America as societies sprouting powerful female pirates.

A contemporary view is reflected in Feminist Criminology on Somali piracy with an article Invisible pirates: Woman and the gendered roles of Somali piracy (2019) all of which debunks the idea of piracy and maritime crime being devoid of any female leadership and involvement in the piracy business model.

A role in promoting stability

Turning attention back to Africa, the seas off the continent are often portrayed as lawlessness zones. Apart from piracy that makes for flashy headlines, the range of illegal criminal activities is but one domain to explore how female participation in maritime crime off Africa plays out. More important however, are the more constructive roles women play to promote stability, safety and prosperity at and from the sea.

The Stable Seas Programme of the One Earth Future’s 2018 reports on women in the maritime domain. The report covers a number of fields.

In brief, the often neglected or underexposed role of women in the maritime field reflects progress, but remains vulnerable to traditional male dominated roles. In coastal communities, women play critical roles to make these societies safer and more productive. They often serve as bastions against illicit activities that undermine the fabric of vulnerable societies and their dependence upon stable and secure oceans

An invisible presence

With regards to the blue economy, the report labels women as ‘invisible fishers’ as they are irreplaceable links in the supply chain for landed fish stocks. Less prominence at sea in physical fishing activities cause their roles not to be recognised if not deliberately exposed.

Many women play a major role in Africa’s fishing industry, but their presence is too often obscured by the prominence of males, whether real or incorrectly perceived.

Their constructive and prominent roles in the continent’s maritime landscape are thus underexposed, rather than absent. While roles of men feature more clearly, these roles too often feature within a destructive array of activities steeped in robbery, piracy, illegal fishing, smuggling and illegal migration activities. These real and perceived negative contributions must be marginalised as oceans are critical future landscapes for humanity.

As the contemporary oceans debate gains traction by accentuating the oceans as key economic, environmental and security landscapes, the need arises for developing commensurate human capital in addition to landward demands.

The interest is not only in what to gain from the oceans as neutral landscapes. How to secure and extend productivity and use of oceanic landscapes by promoting real sustainability, extending good governance, taking responsibility for future generations and environmental accountability are important skills that research, management and leadership must uncover and nurture to stop destructive oceans exploitation.

Beyond exploitation

As human involvement in the oceans extends beyond oceans grabbing and viewing the seas as mere capital for all to exploit, the scope and specialities tapped from human resources must stress the role of women to assume a greater importance to fill out rising fields of study, skills, careers and opportunities.

South Africa, for example, navigates its maritime future along the Maritime Roadmap towards 2030. Alongside the ocean initiatives of Operation Phakisa, this deliberate turn to the oceans is significant. The oceans resources, environmental importance, security and a vehicle to bolster the country’s growth by augmenting the National Development Plan, service delivery and overall economic clout, rests upon mobilising South Africa’s human capital to the maximum.

Here the South African International Maritime Institute  (SAIMI) plays an important role to determine the need and support it with skills, training programmes, studies and institutions. Collectively the latter aims to set up a human capital cohort to underpin the goal of South Africa as a recognised maritime nation by 2030.

It is within these geographic, conceptual and human capital shifts that opportunities for women expand. It is no longer viable to in any way confine the human capital demand for unlocking South Africa’s ocean landscapes as a new development and economic frontier  to males because this locks out or neglects more than 50 percent of the country’s potential working and skills base.

Promoting participation

The South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA), Operation Phakisa’s oceans leg, SAIMI and the Indian Ocean Rim Association Academic Group (IORA-AG(SA) all run dedicated programmes to promote the role and participation of women  in the maritime industry. While they’re laudable, these programmes probably aren’t sufficient on their own to bring the other 50 percent of South Africa’s available human resource element into the rapidly rising maritime field of work.

In retrospect, much of the exposure of South Africans to events off Africa took place through the prominence of crime at sea and also the responses by way of navies, private security contractors and as of recent, activist entities such as Sea Shepherd.

What remains less visible is the growing debate on the importance of the oceans and their value to humanity which requires for all to be more conservative, responsible and accountable in the use, protection and conservation of the oceans.

As a result, oceans assumed a new prominence and recognition in South Africa through its appreciation of the contributions from the country’s oceans. It is now time to bring education and training into step and roll out programmes to make women part of the required workforce to help stave off rampant maritime crime and foster a maritime culture to take the country towards the desired international status by 2030.



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