Last Saturday, Kenya joined other nations in marking World Ocean’s Day under the theme 'Gender and the Ocean.’
The sector players used the opportunity to decry low representation of women in the sector and called for gender equality in ocean-related activities.
According to the UN, gender equality is important for the effective conservation and sustainable use of oceans, seas and marine resources.
Players said there is need for a concerted action towards gender equality through empowerment of women and girls to pursue ocean-related careers in order to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 5.
Fishing Principal Secretary Micheni Ntiba urged women to play a more visible role in the maritime sector.
"The theme of this year is crucial and we want to encourage our women and girls to venture into the maritime sector," Prof Ntiba said.
In the symposium held at the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute, in Mombasa to mark the day, marine experts discussed strides made by women and the hurdles that stand in their way in the sector.
At the forum, it emerged that some companies only hire men, even when there are equally or better qualified women.
The experts encouraged more girls to join careers in marine science, a realm they say has plenty of opportunities. Contribution of women in fisheries sector, they added is limited because they lack training to venture into the high seas.
“We need deep sea fishing training for women,” said Kenya’s first female port inspector, Betty Makena who works for International Transport Federation (ITF) at the Port of Mombasa Kenya.
She called on women to fight for their space in the sector.
“Challenge the men, don't expect to be given anything.”
She urged countries that have not ratified the Maritime Labour Convention to implement it to boost the number of women diving into sea careers.
“Tanzania has not ratified it, we urge them to do so. Ratifying it will ensure more women get into the sea and increase our numbers,” said Ms Makena, who narrated how she ventured into maritime as a young girl and now she is reaping the benefits. She is currently mentoring more girls to venture into the sea.
“As woman, you can do it, you can have it all. Look at me, I did it, I raised a family and ventured into the sea. I am a mother of four..all you need to do is strike a balance,” she said, adding the marine careers are well paying.
Through mentorship programmes, Ms Makena said currently there are more than 20 women studying marine science and engineering in universities. She urged women to also join seafaring careers, adding that they should start by volunteering in order to “be seen, gain experience and expertise”.
Deborah Muchai, Kenya’s only and first female coxswain in the Kenya Police Service Maritime Unit, said there is need to create awareness among girls on maritime jobs.
“Women in the maritime sector are very few, this is a challenge that we must face. We will only win if we increase our numbers. We should create awareness about maritime jobs to the girls,” said Ms Muchai.
“So many women don't know about these jobs. They choose IT, medicine overlooking careers in the marine.”
Ms Muchai’s mandate in the maritime unit include preventing unauthorised access to ships, port facilities and their restricted areas. She also ensures that there is no introduction of unauthorised weapons, incendiary devices or explosives in ships or port facilities. She is further responsible for providing means for raising the alarm in reaction to security threats or security incidents and other security measures in the Kenyan waters.
Ms Muchai cited a number of factors underming the entry women into the sector, including less support from the society, companies preferring male workers, as well as social and cultural hindrances.
“It is a male dominated industry but we must do something to change that narrative and encourage more women. Women receive less support especially from the society. As a coxswain I have done operations in deep sea more than a man could have done,” she said.
“Companies will choose a man over a woman even if she is qualified. On social cultural aspect, many women are not allowed to choose this career because they stay away from their families especially those working on voyages that take more than four months.”
Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association (WIOMSA) Africa President Dr Jacqueline urged women to strive for leadership in the sector.
“Very few women are willing to step into the leadership roles and that begins to present a problem because if I am not growing leaders behind me then I have no one to step into the shoes in the future,” Dr Uku insisted.