Irene Fernandez was a champion of the marginalised, whether they were migrants, refugees, labourers or sex workers, from Bangladesh, the Philippines or Indonesia.
She set up a NGO to fight for their rights call Tenaganita. “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.”
Throughout her life she spoke and worked for the voiceless and helpless. When she was laid to rest at the age of 67 hundreds came to her home to paid their respect.
“Many will feel her absence. But those who work with her, for example those in Tenaganita and the many other organization she’s been connected to, the network she’s part of. I think Irene would just say to all of us that we have to carry on,” Oposition MP, Sivarasa Rasiah says.
Mohammad Harun Al Rashid, CARAM Asia Coordinator replied.
“She taught us to be human rights defenders with care and she never compromised the principle to protect the rights of migrant workers, women and other marginalized communities, that’s who she is, she never compromised on the principle of human rights.”
The funeral mass for her was held at the Church of Divine Mercy in Shah Alam and was celebrated by 12 priests and led by 2 Archbishops.
Her parents were migrants and she understood from an early age what it was like to be underprivileged.
“Shes very outspoken, fiery, passionate, committed to the womens rights issues very strongly,”Maria Chin, BERSIH Chairperson says.
She achieved her greatest prominence in 1995, when she interviewed more than 300 migrant workers being detained by the government.
They told her of rapes, beatings and inadequate food, water and medical care.
When she gave the findings to the press the government charged her with “maliciously publishing false news.”
“I think it hit the global scene because of her outspokenness with regards to the migrant report where she actually exposed death and abuses in jail against migrant workers, I think that was a significant report and that actually captured the global attention.”
Her criminal trial dragged on for seven years, one of the longest in Malaysian history.
After a long battle in courts she was acquitted in 2008.
“That’s one thing you can say about Irene, you couldn’t stop her by threatening her and I think that’s one thing the UMNO, BarisanNasional government did in 1996. They thought by threatening her with a jail sentence they could get her to withdraw her memorandum or say it wasn’t true. But Irene is not that sort of person. Irene said I have the facts, these are serious human rights violation and if I have to go to jail for saying it, I will go to jail. That’s Irene Fernandez,” Sivarasa Rasiah says.
She helpped migrants in whatever way she could, Mohammad Harus Al Rashid said.
“There are 50 of them migrant workers, Irene started a project with them in Bangladesh on their livelihood they had little savings, with their savings they bought a piece of land, they started a supermarket there in Bangladesh. That was the initiative by Tenaganita and Irene Fernandez. She also visited the community in Bangladesh, one of the small community where the women, the spouse of migrant and migrants themselves started their own livelihood in Bangladesh.”
Friends, family and supporters thronged her home as they paid their respects for a woman who stuck to what she believed in and fought for justice.
“I think its people like Irene who we should remember and teach history about. People like Irene Fernandez who did so much for the country. These are the heroes of Malaysia. This is what our kids should be learning about. So I hope that the memory of Irene can be put into documentaries or videos and taught to the kids about what standing up for human rights is all about,” Premesh Chandran CEO, Malaysiakini says.