Irene Fernandez

(2005, Malaysia)

... for her outstanding and courageous work to stop violence against women and abuses of migrant and poor workers.

About

Irene Fernandez was a Malaysian campaigner for the rights of the poorest: migrant workers, farm workers, domestic workers, prostitutes and AIDS sufferers. She continued working, even when a conviction and year's prison sentence hung over her head on the trumped-up charge of "maliciously publishing false news".

Contact Details

Tenaganita

No.38, Jalan Gasing,
Seksyen 5,
Petaling Jaya,
46000, Selangor, Malaysia

She passed away on March 31, 2014 at the age of 67.

Biography

Irene Fernandez was born in Malaysia in 1946 and had three children and several foster children. She began her career as a high school teacher. She became involved with the Young Christian Workers Movement (YCW), based in Brussels, and in 1970 gave up her teaching career to become a full-time organiser for young workers. She became national president of the Malaysian YCW in 1972-75 and was a member of the international committee from 1973-75. During that time, she was able to organise the first textile workers union and began programmes to create trade unions in the free trade zones. She also focused on the development of women leaders in the labour movement.

In 1976, she joined the Consumers Association of Penang (CAP) and worked on consumer education, launching the consumer clubs for secondary school children to teach them about basic needs, safety and protection of the environment. She also began a consumer programme for rural women, linked to a breast-feeding campaign and the Nestlé boycott.

In 1986, she led campaigns to stop violence against women. Various women's groups mushroomed as a result of these campaigns. One was the All Women's Action Society, of which Fernandez was president for five years. It is now one of the strongest women's advocacy groups in Malaysia. The Domestic Violence Act, Sexual Harassment Code and changes to the laws related to rape are all a result of its work. That same year, she was the founder member of Asia Pacific Women Law and Development (APWLD). This regional organisation was designed to bring together women lawyers and activists to look at women's law across the Far East. She was director for more than 10 years.

From 1992, she was the chair of the Pesticide Action Network, working for the elimination of pesticides and developing sustainable agriculture, which led to campaigns on health, against GMOs, and taking back control of seeds. In 1991, Fernandez also founded the Tenaganita organization in Kuala Lumpur. The organisation campaigns for the rights of foreign workers, up to three million of whom are in Malaysia. Foreign workers have been lured into the country, as a deliberate policy of the Malaysian government and have played a critical role in the country's recent economic success, but many now find themselves suffering the most appalling abuses and are detained in camps as undesirables.

Tenaganita, with 15 staff and 150 volunteers, works to document these problems, but also runs a half-way house for prostitutes with HIV, and a number of other programmes relating to migrant and poor workers' health, education, awareness and human rights. It also works with organisations in neighbouring countries to provide health, legal and pre-departure information for workers. In 2005 Tenaganita drew attention to controversial plans by the Malaysian government to deport more than a million foreign migrants.

In 1995, Fernandez published a report on the abuse of migrant workers, cataloguing the malnutrition, physical and sexual abuse and the appalling conditions the workers endure, and set out the facts about the detention camps where they end up and where many of them die.

The research included interviews with as many as 300 migrant workers. The embarrassed government admitted that 46 people had died of various medical conditions in their detention centres, but, in March 1996, Fernandez was arrested at home and charged with "maliciously publishing false news". Her trial became the longest in Malaysian history and many of the witnesses she was relying on were deported before she could make her defence. In 2003 she was finally found guilty and sentenced to a year in prison, having by then appeared in court more than 300 times. By 2005, she was still on bail pending an appeal. While on bail, her passport was confiscated and she was banned from standing for election. During the trial, the offices of Tenaganita were bugged and raided twice by government officers. The funds for their half-way house for women and children with HIV were stopped. Finally, in 2008, after 13 years of battle in court, she was acquitted.

Despite harassment and intimidation Fernandez courageously refused to limit her work or blunt her message, even when the prison term hung over her head. She never used or advocated violence and always worked in an open and legal way. Convinced that she had been targeted for her legitimate work as a human rights defender, Amnesty International campaigned continuously for her acquittal and supported her unequivocally throughout her trial. 

Speeches

Acceptance Speech by Irene Fernandez

Distinguished Speaker, Members of Parliament, Jakob von Uexkull, Founder of Right Livelihood Foundation, Jury and Staff, Honorable Guests, Tania, my daughter who is here with me, Terry Woolfwood, who worked very hard to nominate me and friends.

Today is a beautiful day, irrelevant of the fact that it is freezing outside. The reason is that the Right Livelihood Award Foundation, especially Jakob von Uexkull and the staff behind the scene, have made the difference in organizing this ceremony. Jakob von Uexkull's vision is remarkable. Giving up a precious collection of stamps is indeed very challenging. But the ripple effect, I am sure is incredible. You are wonderful.

Words cannot express the depth of my feelings now. We, in Tenaganita, together with our communities of migrant workers and women workers are overwhelmed and express our heartfelt thanks and deep appreciation of the global recognition you have given to our cause, to our actions and to our struggle.

I am a product of migrant labor. My father was a migrant worker from Kerala India. He worked in the rubber plantations during the British rule in Malaysia. I know the experience, the pain, anxiety and discrimination that we went through. And it is this part of my history that gives me the passion and the zeal to commit to promote and protect migrant workers and women affected by violence, denied rights, dignity and justice.

We never dreamt that the road we have walked and the journey we have taken together with a domestic worker violently abused, or rescuing and rebuilding the life of a Cambodian female child trafficked into Malaysia, or obtaining redress and compensation to a Bangladeshi or a Nepali worker or empowering the most marginalized communities would bring us today to be with you and gain the global recognition through this award. It is fantastic. It is motivating. And the communities we work with are celebrating. They celebrate because it brings a renewed hope that this global recognition will foster solidarity internationally to move forward the struggle in order to gain their dignity and claim their rights.

Tenaganita means women's force. We are a force that does not use guns or goons to make our point or dominate others. We are a force that conscientizes, builds, and empowers the oppressed communities, in particular women and migrant workers, by creating spaces and opportunities for expression, for sharing and for taking actions to protect and claim their rights. Where they are invisible, we become a voice for them. Where they are discriminated, we make them our equals.

One of the worst outcomes of injustices is poverty. It robs human beings of their dignity. When people are poor and when they are reduced to beggars, they feel weak, humiliated, disrespected and undignified. They hide alone in corners and dare not raise their voices. They are neither heard nor seen. They often suffer in isolation and desperation.

And this reality is manifested in the current patterns of migration. In Asia alone over 40 million people are on the move in search of work or anything to survive. There are over 60 million people, again in Asia who go hungry each day. And more than half of humanity earns and lives on less than $2.00 USD a day.

Migrant workers are forced to leave their loved ones, their homes and sell all they have because they can no longer survive in their countries where poverty, unemployment and hunger is increasing day by day.

Confronted with this reality, the poor are becoming vulnerable. Feminization of migration, particularly in Indonesia, Philippines, Cambodia and Sri Lanka is the norm of the day. Governments are more interested in exporting their last resource, the human being, as labor in order to get their remittances. The remittance is a source of foreign exchange to pay the countries' debts to the rich countries via the international financial institutions. In short, the human person has become a commodity to be bought, sold, resold, used and discarded like a piece of tissue. It is the modern day slavery.

It is a slavery that is growing. It is a slavery that is institutionalized and legalized through repressive regulations like the Malaysian Immigration laws and the laws of many developed nations. Gripped with current globalization strategies that are imperialistic and exploitative, people are made to believe that this form of trade and economic growth which embodies centralization of wealth and power is the panacea for hunger, poverty, conflicts and violence. It's a total illusion. It has devastated the lives of millions of people. It has robbed our communities of their resources, of our land and of our production processes. This form of globalization has turned every possible resource into a commodity. Let it be water, health or the human being, it has become a product, a commodity to be exploited for pure profit. The humanity in us is being numbed and killed. And we have to stop it.

It is to arrest this form of senseless growth and repression of people that in 1995, Tenaganita raised the hidden cries and tears of detainees in Immigration detention camps in Malaysia through a Memorandum and a press conference. The government went into a state of denial. Unfortunately it continues to do so. In the absence of a free media, of an independent judicial system and independent oversights for police and state accountability, I was found guilty of publishing false news under the Printing Presses and Publication Act on October 16, 2003 and sentenced to 12 months imprisonment. I came out of court smiling because I knew that I had spoken the truth; we had not compromised on fundamental rights and dignity of people. The conviction has in more ways than one, brought about a new awakening to Malaysians and to the global community.

There are signs, expressions of commitment from our current Prime Minister for a more democratic and just society. I recognize it is not easy to undo the embedded corruption, institutionalized violence and abuse, racism and xenophobia after 22 years of dictatorship. And we hope it will be translated into actions. But migration, migrant workers, trafficking and smuggling of persons and violence are not issues that affect Malaysia alone. It's a global reality that demands a global resolution and action for change.

We now have a global community that calculates how to maximize the benefits for a few at the expense of the majority. At the beginning of the 20th century, the revolutionary thinker Rosa Luxemburg made her famous comment about the possibility that the future might belong to "barbarism". Barbarism in the form of fascism nearly triumphed in the 1930's and 1940's. Today, corporate-driven globalization is creating so much of the same instability, resentment, and crisis that are the breeding grounds of fascist, fanatical, and authoritarian populist movements. Globalization not only has lost its promise but it is embittering many.

But we must change the rules of the global economy, for it is the logic of global capitalism that is the source of the disruption of society and of the environment. The challenge is that even as we deconstruct the old, we dare to imagine and win over people to our visions and programs for the new. We need to take this challenge for we can no longer see and watch people dying, women sold and forced into prostitution, families torn apart, racism and xenophobia pushing its ugly head through violence and children denied a future. We must protect life for life is creation. Let it be life in Mozambique or in Cambodia, in Malaysia or in Sweden, it is the same. And to Life we must give the highest value. It is only when we do this we can call ourselves human beings.

The coming together today for this inspiring award ceremony, can be another step for forging the international solidarity. It is the belief in human rights, that it is universal and indivisible that forms the basis of our unity. I believe, a decision to change our lifestyle can lead to the protection of our forests and biodiversity; an initiative to press for a global ban on the use of hazardous chemicals especially paraquat can protect a woman pesticide sprayer from cancer and other health hazards; a simple letter to the governments to recognize human rights can set a detainee free and a protest over the current international agreements made through WTO that do not recognize the democratic rights of people and nations can reduce forced migration and protect our communities and increase the realization of global justice.

I believe that today what happens in Sweden will have repercussions for us in Asia. After all, we belong to one race, the human race and we have only one earth. This solidarity of people must ensure that we put people and the planet before profits. The earth we are given is not just for us but also for those who come after us. They need a tomorrow and that rests on us today.

This award strengthens me and my organization. We are more determined to realize our mission to promote and protect rights and dignity of the poorest even though the one year jail sentence hangs over me. With your support, we will forge the struggle to bring humanity back into our lives and into the daily lives of the most vulnerable communities in our midst. In this light, I once again would like to say syabas, congratulations and thank you to the Right Livelihood Foundation for today's award ceremony.

I end my acceptance address with the inspiring words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the well-known Russian novelist and Nobel Prize laureate (1970):

"Justice is conscience, not a personal conscience but the conscience of the whole of humanity. Those who clearly recognize the voice of their own conscience usually recognize also the voice of justice."
Thank you.

  Pictures
 Videos

"The Promised Land"

Publications

Background Information on Migrant Workers. Download (pdf)

Links

Contact

Right Livelihood Award Foundation

Head office:
Stockholmsvägen 23
122 62 Enskede
Sweden

Phone: +46 (0)8 70 20 340
Fax: +46 (0)8 70 20 338

Geneva office:
Maison de la Paix
Chemin Eugène-Rigot 2, Building 5
1202 Geneva
Switzerland

Phone: +41 (0)22 555 09 55

E-mail: