Women in shipping - Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry, president, IMO World Maritime University

When asked to pick a career highlight Dr Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry’s response comes fast and assured: developing the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), 2006, is “one of the most important things I’ve done in my life”. 

A barrister at law and a solicitor, she has been a lecturer in law at the University of the West Indies, worked with the Iran-US Claims Tribunal in The Hague and served for over 29 years as a senior lawyer and in several management positions at the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Switzerland. She has published on subjects including the carriage of dangerous goods by sea, environmental law, and international trade, and currently holds the role of president at the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO’s) World Maritime University (WMU) in Malmo, Sweden.

As director for the ILO’s International Labour Standards Department, she was instrumental in the six-year development of the 2006 MLC. It came into force in August 2013 and established minimum working and living standards for all seafarers on ships that ratify the convention. To date, 83 ILO member states have ratified it and are responsible for regulating conditions for seafarers on more than 90% of the world’s gross tonnage of ships.

Widespread support for adoption and ratification of the MLC, 2006, was aided by Doumbia-Henry’s work developing the convention with a special tripartite committee made up of governments, shipowners', and seafarers' workers organisations.

“My role was to prepare the relevant documents, support the process and discussions, and ensure that the tripartite constituents had all the information and time they needed to reach consensus on all issues. The most important factors for me were engagement and buy-in on all the issues, find innovative solutions to address challenges, considering that the ultimate objectives were a level playing field for shipowners and decent work for seafarers.

“The process was intense – frustrating at times – exhausting, and exhilarating. There is no doubt in my mind that it was probably one of the best international exercises in creating ownership as we had to have buy in from everyone.”

With 16 international meetings held over a period of five years from 2000 to 2006, 68 individual maritime labour instruments adopted since 1920 on maritime labour law were consolidated and updated into one single instrument.

However, Doumbia-Henry stressed that for it to succeed the convention must be translated from law in books into law in action. This sizable task is one she said that the ILO can play, particularly with its body of independent legal experts – the ILO Committee of Experts, who has a mandate to check compliance and see how countries are implementing the convention in law and in practice.

“Countries that ratify the MLC, 2006, including the amendments adopted in 2014 and 2016, just as with STWC and SOLAS, must have a legal framework in place and they are required to implement it in order to allow shipowners to meet the requirements by adapting their policies. It is very important that this happens so that flag states and shipowners can demonstrate compliance with the convention, particularly when ships enter the ports of countries where port state control comes into play.”

Three years into her role as president of the WMU, Doumbia-Henry has embedded the MLC 2006 into the universities curriculum to ensure graduates understand and are able to implement it in their leadership roles they will move on to around the globe.

She hopes the image of a more ethically-minded industry will appeal to younger generations, as well as her efforts to tackle the gender imbalance in shipping. “We need change the mind-set of the entire industry about the role that women can play and should play and we still need to attract women to the industry,” stressed Doumbia-Henry.

For WMU’s part, they are working towards a gender balance at the highest levels of its faculty. During Doumbia-Henry’s presidency, the number of female staff has increased from 32% to 47%, and its student intake has also increased from 21% in 2015 to 36.6% in 2017. Under her leadership, WMU has prepared a global strategy with the IMO to strengthen the effects of women in the maritime industry. It is hoped that this will enable maritime companies to put in place policies to provide better gender balance in the industry. She added that organisations like WISTA are doing a “solid and valuable job in promoting women in the industry”.

Doumbia-Henry is hopeful that with quality education and taking the United Nation’s sustainable development goal “to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls” as a challenge that it will help to set the bar high and show shipping is serious about making a change. 

“We have to do more. Everyone has a role to play in every single part of the industry, complex and broad that it is, making sure that it demonstrates that we can make gender equality through quality education and it is a goal that is achievable, implementable, and measurable.”