Irene Fernandez

Awarded 2005

Malaysia

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

Irene Fernandez (1946-2014) was a Malaysian campaigner for the rights of the poorest: migrant workers, farmworkers, domestic workers, prostitutes and people with HIV/AIDS. Despite harassment and intimidation, Fernandez courageously refused to limit her work or blunt her message, even when a prison sentence hung over her head.

After working on a variety of issues ranging from workers’ rights to the protection of women from violence, Fernandez founded Tenaganita, an organisation in Kuala Lumpur, in 1991. It campaigns for the rights of foreign workers, who are often lured into the country through a deliberate policy of the Malaysian government. These workers have played a critical role in the country’s recent economic success, however, many later find themselves suffering the most appalling abuses and are detained in camps as undesirables.

Tenaganita works to document these problems, while also running a halfway house for prostitutes with HIV/AIDS and a number of other programmes relating to migrant and poor workers’ health, education and human rights.

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.

Irene Fernandez, 2005 Laureate

Engaging with a range of social issues

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 1973-1975. 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 consumer clubs for secondary school children to teach them about basic needs, safety and the protection of the environment. She also began a consumer programme for rural women, linked to a breastfeeding campaign and the Nestlé infant formula 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 5 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 the director of it 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.

Standing up for foreign workers

In 1991, Fernandez 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 often been lured into the country through a deliberate policy of the Malaysian government. These workers have played a critical role in the country's recent economic success, but many later found themselves suffering the most appalling abuses, including being detained in camps as undesirables.

Tenaganita works to document these problems, but also runs a halfway 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 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 endured. She also set out the facts about the detention camps where they ended up and where many of them died.

The research included interviews with as many as 300 migrant workers. The Malaysian government admitted that 46 people had died of various medical conditions in their detention centres, but, in March 1996, Fernandez was arrested at her 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 they could take the stand in 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 wiretapped and also raided twice by government officers. The funds for their halfway 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 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.

She passed away on March 31, 2014. The work of Tenaganita continues.

Culture and Education