Huaxuan Chen was fortunate enough to interview Dr. Helena Dalli, one of the pioneers of the women and girls in science movement. After hearing from Dr. Dalli at the past two International Day of Women and Girls in Science forums, Huaxuan found her to be very inspiring and thus wanted to share Dr. Dalli’s message, advice, and story with the rest of the youth around the world. 

Here is the interview below:

Question 1: You were first elected to government in 1996 and subsequently re-elected to Parliament in 1998, 2003, 2008, 2013 and 2017; that means your experience in the Maltese Parliament is one of the longest held by a woman in Maltese politics. You were also the only woman to be elected from two districts in the interest of the Labour Party. I was wondering, since you stayed in politics for so long, why you chose to go down this path?

Answer 1: I am in fact the longest serving woman in the Maltese Parliament. For me politics is a vocation. It is the civic sense of duty towards one’s country and one’s people which drives me to be the change that I want to see. What better way to bring about positive change in people’s lives than through the legislative and policy framework advanced by the highest State institutions?

Question 2: You were the minister for Social Dialogue, Consumer Affairs and Civil Liberties in the 2013-2017 legislature, and you are now Minister of European Affairs and Equality. Could you tell us about what you accomplished during this time?

Answer 2: During the 2013-2017 legislature, under my direction as Minister for Social Dialogue, Consumer Affairs and Civil Liberties, the Government introduced several laws and policies to strengthen the equality and human rights framework which saw Malta achieve regional and international recognition for a number of innovative developments. Equal marriage and civil unions, the right to gender identity and gender expression, and the setting up of the Human Rights and Integration Directorate were all important milestones which laid important foundations for the future.

Such work continued post 2017 – when I was assigned the equality portfolio once again – as Malta retained the top spot of ILGA-Europe’s rainbow index, being the country affording the best legal and policy protection to LGBTIQ people. Building on the previously mentioned foundations, I have recently put before Parliament a bill through which Malta will have its first Human Rights and Equality Commission – a fully independent national human rights institution, answerable to Parliament, in accordance with the Paris Principles and the recommendations of the United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review on Human Rights.  

Question 3: You hold a PhD in Political Sociology and you lecture in Economic and Political Sociology, Public Policy, and Sociology of Law at the University of Malta. What specific topic, in these areas, are you most passionate about and that you think more people should know/learn about? Are women well represented in this field? How has your specialty helped you in your political career?

Answer 3: There are various topics – critical legal theory, women in the legal system, wrongful convictions, class action. What I enjoy most is the opportunity to listen and discuss such topics with students, the exchange of views with young adults and the sharing of different perspectives. A common outcome from lecture discussions is that it is not always the law which informs and regulates society but at times, society itself develops in a certain way which prompts legal changes. 

Question 4: What do you think is the importance of the social sciences in science, technology and innovation and in achieving sustainable development?

Answer 4: In the context of our ongoing efforts to support STEM, the importance of social science should not be overlooked. It is futile creating policies and setting targets or sustainable development goals if we fail to understand people’s attitudes towards such targets and goals and how to bring societies on board. 

Question 5: Now a pivot to the women and girls in science movement. Why did you choose to support RASIT and advocate for the women and girls in science day?

Answer 5: As politicians and women leaders, we must foster change and ensure that it becomes mainstream if we are to achieve the positive lasting effects that we foresee. In doing so, we must first address social mores and popular beliefs which are often based on inaccurate perceptions. Unless challenged, people will act on their perceptions and in the process, such perceptions become reality. Hence, the importance of raising public awareness and challenging norms which have shaped our past but which we will not allow to determine our future.

Until a few years ago, the role of women and girls in science was generally discussed among policy makers and development experts. Today, the advancement of women and girls in science is on the global agenda and we must keep it so. In an intensely connected world, the 11th of February provides us with an important annual platform to sensitize on the need to provide opportunities for women and girls to take up Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, as well as celebrate those who have already done so and can serve as role models.  

Question 6: What do you see in the future of this movement and in the future of gender equality?

Answer 6: As ‘The Lancet’ stated in its February 2019 issue:

“Gender equity is not only a matter of justice and rights, it is crucial for producing the best research and providing the best care to patients. If the field of science, medicine, and global health are to hope to work towards improving human lives, they must be representative of the societies they serve”.

This can only be done if we tear down gender stereotypes which have long surrounded STEM. It is up to us to address the key challenges that we collectively face. Access to education for all is of the essence, and we are not anywhere close to ensuring that girls all over the world have a fair chance to learn. We must do more to secure investment in education and guarantee the right to learn for all.  However, this is only part of the solution. Moreover, we must ensure that the necessary support structures which go beyond education are in place; those structures that allow women to achieve their goals and meet their aspirations while serving humanity in the best way possible. This is where our future lies.

Question 7: Has life challenged you or have you challenged life? How did you resolve the challenges you faced? Do you have any advice for aspiring scientists based on your experiences?

Answer 7: There are numerous challenges, especially for women in a male-oriented environment. It was particularly harder for women my age who up to a few years ago, struggled to voice their opinion, let alone make it to Parliament. In facing one’s challenges, perseverance is key, particularly when vying against opposing societal currents and tight social stereotypes which undermine gender equality. This further outlines the need to provide the necessary structures which empower girls and women and safeguard their right to a level playing field with their male peers when seeking education and employment.

Question 8: I follow you on Instagram, so I’m constantly hearing about the incredible things you’re doing, but I was wondering if you could share with other youth some recent initiatives/projects you’ve been working on (as they pertain to the SDGs).

Answer 8: My most recent and last endeavour as Minister was the presentation before Parliament of the Equality Bill and the Human Rights and Equality Commission Bill. The former will consolidate national principles of equality and non-discrimination in one law, while ensuring an equal level of protection for all protected characteristics at law. Concurrently, the HREC Act will establish a new, independent national human rights institution in line with the Paris Principles which will transform and strengthen the current equality body. Once passed, the HREC Act is expected to entrench the new commission in the Constitution, ensuring its independence and status at law.

Question 9: I saw that you were crowned Miss World Malta in 1979, and that you co-starred in an action film in 1985. What are some of your other hobbies and interests?

  • How do you manage your time to advocate for so many issues nationally and internationally and also spend time with your family and continue your hobbies?

Answer 9: As with all politicians, the public political domain encroaches considerably on one’s private family life. This is particularly so in a tiny country where politics runs high on the national agenda. My family is supportive of my work and the long hours I put in, and this is obviously necessary. Finding the right balance is never easy, nonetheless having time for oneself is key to one’s health. In my case, as a lover of dogs, I try to spend some time with my two pharaoh hounds, walking in Malta’s countryside as I recharge my batteries, clear my mind and get set for the challenges which lie ahead.  

Thank you to Dr. Helena Dalli, once again, for being a wonderful role model to so many young women around the world. We wish you all the best as the European Commissioner designate!

Author

Huaxuan Chen, hails from Toronto, Canada, and is the RASIT Girls in Science Global Spokesperson. Huaxuan is very interested in the intersections between the sciences, business, and sustainable development. She is a member of the Duke Class of 2023.

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