Gender in maritime: Dabney Shall-Holma, OON

05 Jun 2023
Joy Dimka


Her profile and advocacy for achieving gender equality in the male-dominated Nigerian maritime sector.

Dabney Shall-Holma, OON


Dabney Shall-Holma is the Chairperson, Sealink Implementation Committee, with the mandate to bridge the maritime transport infrastructure gap amongst the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC) member countries. Through a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) called Sealink Promotional Company Ltd (SPCL), which is a public-private partnership initiative, Shall-Holma is leading the work with stakeholders to provide, deepen, and facilitate intra-coastal trade, with particular reference to the movement of bulk commodities – solid minerals and agricultural products – as well as containers.

The project recently achieved a milestone in the strive to make Nigeria’s inland waterways navigable by the unveiling of electronic and paper charts of the Lower Niger from Jamata in Kogi State to the Atlantic Ocean via the port of  Burutu in Delta State, through the Ramos River. This is the first time in the history of Nigeria that a systematic survey, charting, and mapping of our waterways was executed with 100% local capacity involving the Nigerian Navy Hydrographic Office, National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA), and the promoters and funding partners.

Shall-Holma is an accomplished Senior Executive with over 39 years of steadily advancing a career in the transport and maritime sector, and with a proven history of building, guiding, and retaining high-performance teams to develop and implement strategies for accelerated growth in the sector.

In 1994, she was seconded to pioneer the Nigerian Unity Line (NUL) as the first female General Manager, along with Admiral Atukum (Rtd) as Chairman, to replace the defunct Nigerian National Shipping Line (NNSL). In 1998, in Libreville Gabon, she crafted and designed a roadmap for the Union of African Shippers Council (UASC’s) introduction of Cargo Tracking Note (CTN), a tool for real-time data and tracking of cargo, creating transparency in shipments and trade transactions.

Dabney Shall-Holma, in 2003, led a technical committee to design the Nigerian International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) Code Roadmap, for which a presidential commendation was given her in writing, signed by the then-Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Transport. She participated and contributed extensively to the negotiations of committee No Ⅲ of the United Nations Commission on Trade Law (UNCITRAL) to develop the UN Convention for International Carriage of Goods wholly or Partly by Sea, known as the Rotterdam Rules, providing a mandatory standard of liability for loss or damage arising from international door-to-door shipment involving international sea freight.

She led the creation of awareness and advocacy on the cost of commodities (exports/imports) under the auspices of the United Nations Common Fund for Commodities (CFC), the Netherlands; led a team of experts to check the capital flight of about N154 billion in 2007, perpetrated by the Europe-West Africa Trade Agreement (EWATA) in the increase of surcharges on Nigerian trade, under the auspices of the UASC; and carried out a gaps analysis for transit operators and ECOWAS trade facilitators in line with the World Trade Organization (WTO)’s Self–Needs Assessment, in collaboration with USAID.

Shall-Holma was a Member/Secretary, Presidential Committee on the sale/purchase of five NNSL vessels; Member, Trade Negotiating team for the Ministerial Conference for West and Central Africa (Now MOWCA) for the World Bank, IMF, and European Negotiation for Cotonou roundtable I and II; Chairperson, lobby and advocacy group for the implementation of Cargo Tracking Note (CTN) in 20 African countries; and Chairperson, UASC’s expert Committee Meetings (No.I) to consider and address problems encountered by shippers in the Sub-region for upward of 20 years.

She was also a Member, Presidential Task Force on Nigeria Customs Service Reform; Chairperson, Committee on the introduction of a control mechanism for the confirmation of the reasonableness of freight rates in collaboration with the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), to stem capital/forex flight; Chairperson, Ministerial Committee on enhancing and revamping activities at the Eastern Port, 2015-2016.

Shall-Holma has B.Sc. Political Science from Bayero University, Kano; and M.Sc. Maritime Transportation University of Wales, College of Cardiff. She has Certificate in Port and Shipping Operations, Organization, and Finance, from Port of Tilbury Training Institute, London; Certificate in International Trade Policy and Practice, Harvard University (JFK) School of Government, USA; and a Masterclass Certificate in the application of Incoterms International Chambers of Commerce, ICC, Paris, France.

She is a Fellow, Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport, (FCILT); Fellow, Nigerian Institute of Personnel Management (FNIMP); Fellow, Institute of Freight Forwarders of Nigeria; Fellow, Nigerian Institute of Shipping; and Fellow of the African Centre for supply chain. She is a Diamond Member of Women in Shipping and Trading Association (WISTA), Women in Maritime Africa (WIMA), WIMOWCA; and former Global Advisor, Women in Logistics and Transport (WILAT). She is a recent receipient of the Nigerian national honour of Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON).


Joy Dimka: Why do we have significant gender imbalance in maritime, and from your experience – and knowledge – what initiatives can foster gender equality in the industry?

Dabney Shall-Holma: The issue of gender imbalance is one hurdle that we need to cross not just as an industry but as a country. So far, 29 African countries have produced either a President or Prime Minister but Nigeria has not. From the national to state houses of assembly and beyond, women are under-represented. A communique issued by the Female Seafarers Association of Nigeria (FESAN), in conjunction with the Women in Maritime Journalism (WIMAJ) on the 2021 Day of the Seafarer, stated that only 9.3% (567 out of 6,039) of the sailors registered in Nigeria are women. Also, just 14.5% (304 out of 2,041) beneficiaries of the Nigerian Seafarers Development Programme (NSDP) are women.

The above underlines the fact that intentional efforts to ensure a gender balance are not prioritised or put into practice in a historically male-dominated maritime industry – and Nigeria’s politics. Notwithstanding, the resolution from the recently approved revised National Gender Policy recognises the need for sector-specific gender inclusion actions.

The insignificant representation of women in the maritime industry in Nigeria is the result of historical, cultural, and structural issues. These include norms and stereotypes that the maritime sector, particularly seafaring, is physically demanding with unpredictable schedules that necessitates lengthy periods at sea. As a result, the harsh lifestyle is thought to be best suited for men.

The scarcity of female role models and leaders due to gender imbalance in the industry has also deterred young women from pursuing careers in this field and suggests that this is not a professional option for women. Recruitment and hiring practices within the industry have historically favoured male applicants, and lack of targeted outreach to women has contributed to the perpetuation of the gender disparity.

The lack of inclusiveness in decision-making – including consideration for maternity leave and benefits for female seafarers, safety issues, and facilities and accommodations for women – creates additional challenges and concerns that steer women away from pursuing maritime careers.

Addressing these issues requires a multi-faceted approach, one that emphasises diversity and inclusion, challenging preconceptions and stereotypes, provision of mentorship and support networks, better working conditions, and inclusive recruitment practices.

To achieve gender balance and profit from a varied workforce, actions must be taken to increase awareness, offer training, and provide equitable opportunities for men and women working in the maritime sector. This will recondition the sector and create a clearer roadmap for women, including the younger generations, to dream of making giant strides in this industry.

It is worthy of note that the fight against gender disparity starts from the primary agent of transformation, i.e., the family. Part of the foundation of who I am today is the fact that gender disparity is strongly resisted in my family. Irrespective of sex, we were trained to live above the gender stereotype at work and in any  environment we find ourselves.

Joy Dimka: What role can men play in promoting gender equality in the industry?

Dabney Shall-Holma: In addition to being a fundamental human right, gender equality is also the basis for a world that is stable, prosperous, and sustainable. Men in traditional cultures are inclined to greatly underestimate the abilities of women to bring about development and positive impact on the entire community. Therefore, it is the responsibility of enlightened men, the ‘He4She’, to support the leadership of women. This includes assisting young women in breaking the glass ceiling in pursuing careers in the maritime industry through mentoring. Men can also promote the identification and condemnation of microaggressions of any form against women.