Press Release

Breaking waves and gender barriers in Sri Lanka maritime sector

Published On: Jul 01, 2024

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (ILO News) – Sixteen months ago, Nayomi Amarasinghe became seafarer, after taking part in a training course supported by the International Labour Organization (ILO).

"My love for the maritime industry is evident from the tattoo of an anchor on my forearm," she said. "I'm overjoyed that I was able to overcome the gender barriers that could have prevented me from becoming a seafarer."

After completing her secondary education, Amarasinghe wanted to become a journalist. Despite completing several training courses in journalism, she struggled to find a job. She did not give up. She tried working with her sister, who ran a business, and also started to train as a hairdresser. Then she learned about the seafaring training opportunity.

At first her parents didn’t want their daughter to become a seafarer. "My two brothers are serving in the Sri Lankan navy. It was an effort to get my parents’ blessing to enter the maritime academy," Amarasinghe said. "It's difficult to work in this industry, especially if you are a woman."

Her entry point came through the ILO’s Skilling Sri Lankan Migrant Workers Affected by COVID-19 for Employment, Decent Jobs, and Entrepreneurship project. This facilitated the upskilling of aspiring and returning migrant workers affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. It targeted decent employment opportunities in the maritime sector by working with the National Union of Seafarers Sri Lanka (NUSS). The NUSS linked up with the Mahapola Ports & Maritime Academy to train 21 young men and three young women, including Amarasinghe, as seafarers.  

During the training Amarasinghe learned about the role of seafarers and how to carry out the responsibilities she would have on a ship. She realised that safety was the top priority. "I also received emergency operations training, so I know what steps to take when anchoring a ship,” she said.

Despite her enthusiasm, her training was filled with challenges. “Many individuals, including family members, criticized me for wanting to work in the maritime industry,” she said.  “Many of them didn’t have confidence in my ability to perform my job as a woman.  Their criticism motivated me even more to finish the training programme."

Since completing her training, Amarasinghe has toured the world working as a seafarer with Carnival Cruise Line. Seafaring is a male-dominated industry, and although she has often been the only female member of the crew, her experience so far has been positive.

“I love working as a seafarer,” she said. “I’ve worked with people from Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy and the Philippines.  They are friendly and I never feel alone. The training was theoretical, but now I am putting my skills to practice and learning more every day.

My main role on board ship is to make sure that the side gates onboard, including on all the smaller boats, are well greased so that they don’t get stuck and we can always open them.”

Amarasinghe says that the best experience of her life at sea so far came earlier this year when she was at the helm of one of the tender boats transporting passengers to and from a cruise ship. “We were at a port in Scotland, it was a very windy day and the water was choppy,” she said, “but I steered the boat safely to shore and the passengers shook my hand and told me they were proud of me!”

With sixteen months of experience the 30-year-old already has plans for her future career in seafaring. “Once I’ve completed my next six-month contract, which begins in September, I plan to take the exams to become an officer. One day perhaps I will become a sea captain.”