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Pete Buttigieg Asks IMO to Address Sexual Assault at Sea

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Member state flags at IMO headquarters in London (IMO)

Published Dec 12, 2021 7:54 PM by The Maritime Executive

Last week, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg took time to address an IMO General Assembly meeting in London by videoconference, and while his remarks centered on emissions and supply chain disruption, he devoted a substantial share of his speech to the rarely-discussed problem of sexual assault and sexual harassment at sea. 

Less than one percent of the global seafaring workforce is female, and Buttigieg noted that while IMO is working hard to improve gender equity in the industry, it has "a very long way to go." He pointed to sexual assault and harassment as a particularly urgent problem facing female mariners. 

"Our current challenges and opportunities aren’t just about ships – they’re about mariners. These workers are truly essential to our economies, our national securities, and our futures, and they need to be respected," he said. "Gender equity matters . . . and I want to emphasize one area where the need for action is particularly urgent. For too long, sexual assault and sexual harassment in maritime shipping has been an open secret, affecting the industry around the world. Statements and commitments of zero tolerance must be backed by concrete, deliberate action."

The U.S. Department of Transportation is acutely aware of sexual assault and sexual harassment at sea: it is currently investigating a high-profile attack on a cadet aboard a Maersk Line Limited (MLL) vessel. The victim was a midshipmen at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, and she was under way as part of USMMA's Sea Year training program. MLL's container ships are subsidized by DOT, and USMMA is administered by DOT. 

"My department is working with the U.S. Coast Guard to make it easier for victims to come forward, to ensure that perpetrators can be held accountable – and, most importantly, to prevent assault and harassment from happening in the first place," Buttigieg said. "The U.S. will do our part to hasten the day that sexual assault and harassment find no safe harbor in the maritime industry. And we look forward to working with the IMO, which we believe has a key role to play in addressing this crisis."