Irene Fernandez – Malaysia

Linked with our presentation of Asia Pacific Forum on Women Law and Development APWLD – Malaysia.

Linked also with our presentation of Petition of Complaint to the National Human Rights Commission SUHAKAM.

She is one of the 1000 women proposed fort the Nobel Peace Price 2005.

She says: “When I see the migrant workers’ broken bodies and eyes without hope, I want to embrace and wipe away their fears. It makes me angry and helps me to keep fighting the oppressive system.”

Irene Fernandez – Malaysia

She works for Tenaganita (Women’s Force),

and for Voice of the Malaysian People, Suaram (see the Homepage), see also this page about torture,

and also for the Asia Pacific Forum on Women Law and Development APWLD.

Dr Irene Fernandez (born 1946) is a teacher who turned to human rights activism to make a difference in people’s lives. Irene saves lives and protects the rights of thousands of migrant workers in Malaysia by providing legal representation, giving them protection from harassment, unjust arrest and persecution, and giving them assistance to return home. In 1991, Irene founded Tenaganita, which champions the rights of migrant workers, the protection of women from HIV/Aids and other related issues. There are probably more portraits of the Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara in the 14th floor office of the human rights organization Tenaganita (‘Women Power’) than anywhere else in Malaysia.

The decor says a lot about the idealism and personal sacrifice of the officers of Tenaganita, which champions causes such as the rights of migrant workers, health, women, HIV/AIDS, and the use of pesticides amid the larger Malaysian society -where wealth and power are in the hands of a minority, where the middle class gripes about traffic jams and blocked drains, and where the majority works long hours and struggles for its daily bread.

The office of Tenaganita’s director, Irene Fernandez, is small and the walls are graced not only by the ever-present Che, but also by Malaysia’s opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim, whose arrest in 1998 sparked the reformation movement. He spent six years in jail under false accusations of sodomy.Irene’s desk is cluttered and stacked high with papers, reports, books and pamphlets, showing the many causes that Tenaganita it involved in. On the wall behind her, underneath another portrait of the Che is written: To resist is to win.

“We only live once. That is why life is precious for each one of us. Life is nurtured, protected, secured. But for more and more people, life is being threatened. As globalization grips us, inequalities sharpen and the divide between the North and South increases. Poverty is one major factor that threatens life,” Irene says. It is a message she delivers wherever she goes. And she repeated this at a recent solidarity dinner attended by over 1,000 participants that included diplomats, human rights activists and migrant workers to launch Tenaganita’s music album ‘Silenced Voices’, and a documentary film called ‘Breaking Labor’.

“In Asia, more than 600 million people go to bed hungry. Workers are treated as commodities and not human beings,” she says. The plight of migrant workers is another key theme of her struggle.

Over the past 14 years, Tenaganita has championed the cause of the lowly migrant workers, young women trafficked into prostitution, undocumented workers arrested and held for months without trial in detention camps, domestic workers violently abused and beaten and raped, and women in Malaysia’s rubber and oil palm plantations who work long hours handling dangerous pesticides for two dollars a day.

Irene’s work has drawn displeasure from Malaysia’s authorities. A sword hangs over her head for highlighting the inhuman conditions in detention camps, and for which Irene was charged with publishing false news in 1990. After a longest trial in Malaysian history – 12 years – she was sentenced to one year in jail in 2003. Her passport was confiscated. Irene has appealed the sentence but no date has been fixed for hearing it. “Irene is a hero to thousands of unsung migrant workers whose interest she has fought for and she has been punished,” says Sharuna Verghis, coordinator of Coordination of Action Research on AIDS and Mobility (CARAM). “She has made a huge personal sacrifice for her beliefs.”

Irene has had a long and colorful career in human rights activism that reads like the history of the non-government movement in Malaysia. She has been in on every issue – consumerism, feminism, women, education, freedom, and democracy. “I started as a teacher and first saw the effects of poverty on poor urban students. It was terrible,” says this mother of three grown-up children. “They were hungry, lost, neglected and very depressed.” That was Irene’s first encounter with poverty. “I started asking myself why so many students were hungry and could not read and not getting a decent education,” she said.

This questioning led her to campaigning and eventually to joining the Young Christian Women’s Movement (YCWM). These were the formative years of her intellectual life and would later color her activism. The Bible, Jesus’ sacrifice, class differences, exploitation and the injustices around her coalesced into a mission to right the wrongs, help the downtrodden and champion the cause of the poor.

“I read what Christ has gone through. It really motivated me – he never compromised on love and justice, or the truth,” she explains.

Through the YCWM, she traveled to other parts of the world, met other activists and discovered the writings and teachings of Father Paulo Freire author of ‘The Pedagogy of the Oppressed’.

In 1976, Irene left YCWM and joined the Consumers’ Association of Penang, which then was the leading advocate of consumer issues and growing to become the most influential grassroots organization in the country. “At CAP I had a well-rounded experience forming consumer clubs, organizing workers and farmers and fighting big multinationals like infant food giants,” she explains. “It was a very exciting time opposing infant formula and promoting breastfeeding.” She adds: “We stepped on the toes of the giants companies and angered the government that supported them. I came face to face with big business and their dirty tactics.”

At CAP she also visited huge rubber plantations where women sprayed pesticides and developed numerous health side effects as a result of continuous exposure to the chemicals.

From working in CAP, she moved to the Selangor Consumer Association in 1985. There she took up feminist causes, did research and organized women workers, opposed violence against women, raised issues like domestic violence and exploitation of women in the media, campaigned for equal opportunities and opposed gender bias. “In the late 1980s, new women’s groups were mushrooming in the country and there was a need to coordinate these groups and form a women’s collective to have a bigger and stronger voice,” she relates. “We discussed and decided to form the Women’s Development Collective.” Because of her long experience in grassroots activism, Irene was chosen to be the coordinator of the collective. She began working and organizing women factory workers in free trade zones. “Low wages and long working hours were the norm and trade unions were banned, so we were the only organization the workers would rely upon,” Irene says.

1987 was a turning point for Irene and many activists. This was when the government came down hard on the incipient democracy movement and arrested over 100 opposition politicians, activists and reformists. Although Irene was not arrested, her work was badly affected and fear gripped activists and grassroots organizations. The government-controlled media also portrayed NGOs as enemies of the people. “Two women’s collective activists were arrested and as a result, the movement decided to stop being a grassroots organization and to be a coordinating body,” Irene relates.

After a break of a few years spent reading and soul-searching, Irene went back to the hustings in 1991. This time she formed Tenaganita, which, under Irene’s direction, grew into a premier human rights organization.

It was a heady time in Malaysia. The economy was taking off and catching up with the west was the byword. With cheap U.S. dollar loans and foreign direct investment, the economy developed furiously.

This was the year migrant workers were first imported into Malaysia and soon over three million, both documented and undocumented, had arrived and were working at factories, construction sites and plantations.

“By 1993 and 1994 undocumented workers were getting arrested and detained in detention camps, where conditions were horrific. Some died while others suffered from various diseases,” Irene says.

In the rush to develop and for the sake of convenience, every sector of society that should have assisted foreign workers – hospitals, trade unions and even multinational companies – failed to provide the basic protection and safety guaranteed by ILO conventions.

Only a handful of organizations like Tenaganita developed programs to help migrant workers, setting up telephone counseling, doing research, providing legal aid, making representations with the government to pressure the authorities to give undocumented workers due protection.

Irene’s work for the exploited came to a head in 1993 when she started researching on the horrific conditions in the detention camps for migrant workers, where at one time even the cheapest Vitamin C was not available. She collaborated with journalists from The Sun newspaper to expose the conditions in the camp in July 1995, although the in-depth feature the newspaper researched was never published because of government pressure. Irene was then forced to write a memorandum on the conditions in the camp and publish it herself. She mailed and faxed it to foreign embassies, international agencies and foreign journalists, angering the government.

When the report titled ‘Abuse, Torture and Dehumanized Treatment of Migrant Workers in Detention Centers’ was released, it attracted international attention. Drawing on interviews with over 300 former detainees, the memorandum alleged that unsanitary conditions, inadequate food and water, frequent deaths from beatings and a lack of medical care, along with sexual abuse and corruption, were rife in Malaysia’s immigration camps. The government claimed that the memorandum contained errors.

Irene was charged with publishing malicious false news under the 1984 Printing Presses and Publication Act. For activists and other critics, this was judicial persecution at it worst. The government however quietly improved conditions in the camps and instituted new camp rules, bearing out Irene’s charges.

During the trial, former detainees from Bangladesh testified that they were beaten and seriously injured, forced to perform sex acts on other detainees, kept in crowded mosquito-infested rooms with foul toilets, denied medical care, water, and clean clothes and forced to stand looking into the sun as a form of punishment.

The long-drawn trial saw Irene appearing in court more than 300 times. Numerous international human rights groups campaigned for her and stood by her during the harrowing trial. Although the relentless prosecution damaged her health and hindered her work and that of Tenaganita, Irene continues to speak out courageously for human rights and the interest of women and undocumented workers.

“The support and affection shown by international human rights organizations have given me the strength to continue,” Irene says simply. “They have also given strength to the migrant workers and victims of abuse to fight oppression.”

On Oct. 17, 2003, Malaysian newspapers uniformly ran the headline ‘Irene Fernandez Guilty, Sentenced to One year in Prison’. Many Malaysians activists, foreign workers and her family and relatives who were in court cried when they heard the sentence, but Irene came out smiling. “People saw my face, and seeing me smiling, misread that I had been acquitted,” Irene recalls. “I smiled at seeing so many supporters outside the court.” “The conviction demonstrates that there is no protection for human rights defenders to articulate concerns over human rights violations,” says human right activist S Arulchelvam. “Such a trend not only curtails constructive criticism but has serious implications for all organizations involved in the promotion and protection of rights of people.”

Many activists immediately launched a ‘Defend the Defenders’ campaign, calling attention to the U.N. convention urging all nations to protect and respect human rights defenders so that they can fulfill their role and responsibilities.

“The conviction is terrible and spells a tremendous setback in the work of the NGOs in Malaysia and their effort to bring into focus the plight of thousands of workers particularly migrant workers throughout Malaysia,” says Sarojeni Rengam, executive director of the Malaysia-based Pesticides Action Network, Asia-Pacific. “Irene Fernandez is a champion of human rights and has zealously defended the rights of plantation and industrial workers for a safe working environment for close to three decades,” Sarojeni says. “Her work in documenting the impact of pesticides on women plantation workers through a systematic and scientific investigation led to the banning of paraquat,” she points out.

Meantime, Irene remains unconcerned about the one-year jail sentence hanging over her head.

“To me the trial and the conviction is a symbol of my victory and their defeat, because it shows I have achieved success in my work and that is why the oppressor is angry and wielded the axe,” Irene stresses. And adds: “It means we must press on. We are on the right path.” (See all that on this page).


the right livelihood award;

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