In 1997, the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) started appointing women in all types of positions, including combat positions. Since then, Prof Lindy Heinecken from the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at Stellenbosch University (SU) has been researching the challenges and debates associated with incorporating women in the military. Looking back, her research on military women has not only shifted gender binaries in the SANDF but also increased people's mindfulness and understanding of the different tensions that gender integration evokes.
As part of SU's Women's Month celebrations, Prof Heinecken tells us about her research.
Can you tell us more about your research?
For the past 30 years, I have been researching the military, with a specific focus on personnel issues. With the military being a highly masculine institution, gender integration has been a key research focus.
Why or how did you become interested in this specific area of research?
Initially, I worked at the Centre for Military Studies (CEMIS) at the Military Academy in Saldanha. In 1997, all the SANDF positions, including combat posts, opened up to women. As part of my work as a researcher at CEMIS, I was commissioned to do a study on the challenges and debates associated with incorporating women in the military, particularly in combat positions. Since then, my research on women in the military has expanded considerably, and I looked at a range of issues that affect women who serve in the military. These include issues affecting recruitment and retention, their deployment on peacekeeping missions, issues of sexuality and gender harassment and the impact that more women have on the military in terms of 're-gendering' the military.
Why do you think this is such an important area of research for South African women?
Violence and war affect men and women differently. The United Nations Security Council Resolution, 1325, called for the greater inclusion of women in the military and on deployment on peacekeeping missions. The need to have more women in the military is not only a right but also a necessity. In many ways, they make a unique contribution in addressing the challenges that local women face in areas affected by armed conflict. They can engage more readily with the local population; local customs often do not allow men to talk to other 'local' women. Besides that, women have a more conciliatory approach to conflict resolution. Hence, understanding the obstacles that affect women's integration in the military and their deployment on peacekeeping missions is critical. Even more so where the military is deployed within and among the local population, whether internally or on peacekeeping missions.
What would you consider the greatest impact of your research on women in the country?
I consider myself a 'public sociologist' and therefore, the type of research I do is meant to be of some 'practical' value, beyond academia. I have been a keynote speaker at many of the Department of Defence Gender Conferences and have briefed the South African Infantry Formation and Army Command Council on issues of gender integration. I definitely think I have been able to shift gender binaries in the SANDF and been able to get them to understand the different tensions that gender integration evokes.
Do you have any message for the next generation of women researchers?
To always have a gender perspective in their work. Gender matters as the events that unfold around us, like COVID-19 affects men and women differently due to the power dynamic embedded within society.