Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Gorch Foch: women sea cadets harassed to death?

Harassment, humiliation - and now suicide, seemingly!

OK, ships have their bizarre initiation rituals. Though most of us wouldn't like to undergo them, some rituals may not be harmful.

But German navy sailing ship, the Gorch Fock, is undergoing a mutiny investigation because it's all gone too far. It's just emerged that after Nov 2010 some recruits refused to obey orders after a woman cadet fell to her death from the rigging.

Sarah Lena Seele (25) was bullied into climbing the 27 metre mast in a training exercise, say her colleagues. Insult was added to injury when the ship's crew held a raucous party just three days after the woman had died, reports Helen Pidd in a Guardian article: German Navy hit by sex, drink and bullying scandal. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jan/25/german-navy-sexual-harassment-claims.

Another women cadet, Jenny Böken (18) has also died in mysterious circumstances. She drowned in 2008 and her parents believe she was sexually harassed in the run-up to her death. They have demanded a full investigation.

“I think it is absolutely possible that Jenny was harassed and went overboard during a quarrel,” father Uwe Böken told Bild. “An accident simply doesn’t make sense. From the beginning I’ve thought that sexual coercion was the scenario.”

There have been many complaints about sexual harassment and bullying on this ship. Not only are women the targets, but also young men. Pidd writes: 'In the leaked report... [the parliamentary ombudsman for the armed forces, Hellmut Königshaus] and his team report tales of massive alcohol consumption on board. Drunken officers forced their underlings to scrub their vomit from the deck, it is claimed, and threatened to kill cadets while intoxicated.

'One male cadet complained of sexual harassment in the ship's showers. "It was like being in jail on the ship," he reportedly told investigators. "Every new recruit had to offer up his arse." The cadet said crew members were always throwing his shampoo bottle on the floor so that he had to bend down to pick it up.

'Over the weekend a female cadet told the tabloid Bild that she and other women were frequently propositioned by men on board.

'According to another report in Spiegel Online, one recruit told investigators that crew members told him they were members of the Aryan Brotherhood. [This is]the racist group which is responsible for murders, extortion and drug trafficking in US prisons.

Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the German defence minister, has sacked Captain Norbert Schatz. Once the pride of the German navy and called the country's "floating ambassador" the Gorch Fock,is now being dubbed "Germany's biggest floating brothel."'

Königshaus wants to install an equal opportunities officer on board.

This entirely misses the point that harassment and bullying are cultural problems, to be tackled at the root. Any one who has been at sea will know this can't be just a one-off situation. The case of cadet Akhona Geveza (see my blog July 25 2010) makes that clear.

Respect has to be taught and learnt and learnt, not least in the isolated and pressurised spaces of a ship at sea where people are so vulnerable to bullying.

See more at the Safety4sea site: http://www.google.co.uk/imgres?imgurl=http://www.safety4sea.com/admin/images/media/2010.11.09_GORCH_FOCK

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