The Merchant Navy has for long been an all-male occupation. The image of the seafarer is abiding: blue seas, exotic ports of call and duty-free shops. Women are now storming this male bastion. Apart from joining up in the Merchant Navy, there is also recognition of how the atypical lives that men in the service lead impacts the lives of their wives and family.
A seminar in Kolkata - organized by Fleet Management Limited (FML), a Hong Kong-based company with a number of Indian crew - reflected on some of these problems. The organizers claimed this was the first time such an initiative was started in India. The seminar on the role of the wife in a seafarer's life was not the usual advice-and-pep-talk routine one expects. There were a number of interactive sessions, with open discussions on problems that wives of officers deal with.
One woman, who works with an NGO, said, "After nine months at sea, he wishes to have me around when he is at home. But I have my commitments, and can't switch off for three months like that." Amarjit Rewari, counsellor, psychologist and Chairperson of the Delhi-based Applied Research International, an organization which trains seafarers, admits that she regularly comes across sailors' wives who find the adjustment stressful. A successful banker confided in her, "He's genuinely proud of my achievements. But when he's home, he asks me if I couldn't go a little later to office or meet him for lunch. But I hardly have time enough for a bite during the day!"
This kind of thing often leads to conflicts. "Adjustments by both partners and quality time together are extremely important," says Rewari.
Another problem discussed at the conference was the attitude that the profession inculcates in its officers. Rewari's experience as the wife of a senior officer helps. "From a very young age, these men train and work in a very male-oriented, men-only environment. They are clueless about how to solve everyday domestic problems. Most don't know how to deal with the emotional subtleties of women at home."
Some sailors, for example, come back home and expect everything to be kept spic-and-span. They enact the autocratic role they play on the ship, at home. Then there are those who come home and go absolutely haywire. They keep no schedules and keep things completely shoddy. Their wives and children resent this intrusion into their normal lifestyle. "Not surprisingly, you'll often hear children asking discreetly - 'when is he going back?'," says Rewari.
There are other problems as well. The men are away for nine months at a stretch and the female partner has to deal with all the emergencies on their own. "Wives of senior officers can accompany their husbands sometimes. But when children arrive, even that is no longer possible. Anyway, on the few trips I took, the ship duty hours ensured that I didn't see much of my husband," said one woman. Today, even holidays are taken up with her daughter's school work, all of which she must cope with on her own.
In India, many women live with their husband's family when he's away, leading to further tensions. A woman revealed to Rewari that her father-in-law kept tabs on every incoming or outgoing phone call that she was on. This intrusion on her right to privacy was justified by the family as a show of concern. A less discussed subject is the security issue faced by women living alone in India. A number of women also feel the need to be on constant guard to keep away uncalled-for advances.
Although specific statistics are not available, Rewari believes that divorces along sailor families are on the rise. Rewari believes that a basic understanding of the needs and constraints of the profession by both partners is necessary to allay some of the tensions. Some sailors at the conference said that if the wives are employed or have a hobby that really interests them, it reduces the loneliness they feel when their husbands are away.
Support groups also help. The Merchant Navy Officers Wives Association (MNOWA), Kolkata, meets once or twice a month and organizes various programs, like competitions among slum children or visiting old age homes. "Besides helping women develop a feeling of self-worth, these programs help develop a feeling of togetherness. After all, to allegorize an old song - we are in the same boat, brother!" says Alison Hyams of MNOWA.
Meanwhile, the all-male bastion of the Merchant Navy is also seeing a gradual change. Sanjay Shesh of FML says, "We've two women engineers on the roll now. We were initially a little doubtful about whether they would cope. But they are really good and very dedicated." The two women, Archana Saxena and Sarvani Misra, are working on-shore now but they will soon be required to sail for months together.
At one level, the entry of women in the merchant navy has the potential of bringing in a fresh perspective into a profession hitherto dominated by men. At another level however, the problems faced by the wives and families of the officers remain. And these need to be addressed through multiple angles.