Every other breath we take comes from our oceans ― and our oceans are dying. Climate change is warming their waters, leading to a disruption in migration patterns and increasing acidification. Overfishing is irreversibly altering marine ecosystems, with an estimated 60 to 90 percent of oceanic predators like tuna and swordfish already gone. Forecasts predict we may lose 90 percent of our glorious coral reefs by 2050, along with the vital nursery grounds and coastal protections they provide. And 8 million tons of plastic enter our seas every single year, allowing harmful chemicals into our food chains.
Like many other environmentalists, I believe it’s possible to prevent further damage to the world’s oceans, which we must do to protect our future. But it is no longer enough to simply shout from the rooftops about this unfolding catastrophe; after almost 20 years of ocean advocacy work, my voice is sore. As governments convene throughout 2018 and beyond to discuss new and necessary ocean laws, we must give equal consideration to the perspectives of women.
Our oceans cover more than 70 percent of the earth’s surface, yet throughout human history, legislation has focused almost entirely on the other 30 percent. For centuries, governments have drawn borders, written rules of conduct, signed treaties, enforced regulations and set laws for the land that covers less than one-third of the planet.
Eventually, rules were also written for sovereign waters ― areas we now call “exclusive economic zones” ― but these apply to only a fraction of the ocean. Most of the ocean ― 64 percent ― is what is known as the “high seas.” This vast area does not belong to any one nation, and rules and regulations that aim to protect and sustain life (whether human or marine) are scant in this oceanic version of the Wild West. And the treaties and regulatory bodies that do exist for the high seas, such as the International Seabed Authority and Regional Fisheries Management Organisations, don’t provide comprehensive oversight or protection.
“We can no longer afford to let the course of humanity be determined by one gender alone.”
Generally speaking, ocean law was a latecomer to the international scene; the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) only came into effect in 1994. UNCLOS technically covers both sovereign waters and the high seas, but until now, little attention has been given to the latter. It’s incredible to me that, after centuries of seafaring, trade, fishing and exploring, these laws came into effect just as I was dreaming of one day becoming an ocean explorer myself.
The push to achieve gender equality has accelerated only in recent years, so it is not surprising the original UNCLOS negotiations and related legal instruments did not include a conscious effort to incorporate women’s perspectives or take into account the practical needs of women working in the maritime domain.
The issues with this are twofold. One, laws relating to labor conditions and health at sea were originally developed decades ago by men and for men, since historically it was mainly males who took to the seas. Such laws do not adequately accommodate the unique medical and sanitary needs of women seafarers, who comprise 1 to 2 percent of the overall seafaring workforce. Furthermore, the few women who do work at sea are vulnerable to sexual harassment and assault. Changing the language related to gender in these laws and including better provisions for women will start to address these issues.
However, the existing, male-authored Law of the Sea goes far beyond failing to meet the distinct needs of women seafarers; it also has profound effects on the approaches we take when protecting our natural resources, which brings us to the greater issue. Our ocean laws are premised on a very human-centric and patriarchal view of the world ― in which the exploitation of natural resources is primarily about power and wealth ― and don’t necessarily favor the human collective. Humanitarian or moral considerations are not adequately addressed as a result, and a collectivist approach, in which multiple perspectives are embraced, is often not valued.
The big questions here are: Would sea laws reflect a more comprehensive view of the relationship between humans and the natural world, and with a greater sense of morality, if they were co-created by men and women? And would that collaboration result in better protections for our oceans? I believe they would; we are not harnessing our full potential as a species when we don’t take the opinions of half of our population into consideration.
Academia supports this notion, as well. Research has shown gender diversity fosters innovation, and innovation is exactly what we need if we want to save our oceans. And as maritime law expert Elisabeth Mann Borgese noted in her 1963 book The Ascent Of Woman, women tend to do better in community-oriented societies than in individualistic ones, which suggests femininity is more closely aligned with the collective rather than the self. This thinking is not unique to ocean law and can be applied across many systems that underpin our societies, be they political, financial or judicial.
Fortunately, the gaping holes in ocean law when it comes to the high seas are finally being recognized, and the United Nations has agreed to start work to fill them. My colleagues and I will be pushing for more equal representation at the upcoming September 2018 negotiations on a treaty for the high seas. These talks will take place throughout this year and beyond, with governments meeting regularly at the U.N. headquarters in New York. We have a chance to make things right and change the way we manage our planet’s depleting ocean resources.
“Most of the ocean ― 64 percent ― is what is known as the 'high seas.' This vast area does not belong to any one nation.”
However, you don’t need to be a marine biologist or seafaring woman to get involved. Simply engaging on social media with nonprofits pushing for ocean protection can make a difference, as can asking your representatives what your government is doing to better include the perspectives of women when drafting laws to protect our oceans.
Change doesn’t happen overnight, but we are already getting better at recognizing and addressing gender inequality and simultaneously realizing we must change the way we manage our planet’s natural resources. I am doing what I can to participate by initiating a movement to unite women everywhere in action for our oceans and to create the space for all of our voices to be heard, both locally and on the global stage. We can no longer afford to let the course of humanity be determined by one gender alone. We must incorporate a collective approach to the way we interact with the world’s oceans going forward.
This isn’t just about gender equality, though of course that matters greatly. It’s about saving the one planet we have, and to do that, we must tap into every resource, expertise and viewpoint available to us. We can help prevent further damage to our oceans, but only if we recognize women are a valuable part of the solution.
Farah Obaidullah is an ocean advocate and the founder of Women4Oceans. She holds a master of science degree in environmental technology and a bachelor of science degree in biology from Imperial College in London. She lives by the sea in the Netherlands.