Malaysia: Irene Fernandez

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

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.

Irene Fernandez underwent trial that lasted 13 years for publishing a report on the situation of migrant workers in Malaysian detention camps. Her report showed the unsanitary conditions, frequent deaths from beatings, lack of medical care, sexual abuse and corruption rife in Malaysia's immigration detention camps. The revelations severely embarrassed the government and brought changes to camp conditions. But Irene incurred the wrath of the authorities. In October 2003, she was sentenced to one year in prison. She is on bail pending hearing of her appeal. It is unclear at what point the government plans to enforce her sentence. Meanwhile, her right to travel is severely restricted. Over the course of her trial, she appeared in court 310 times and in 2004, she was barred from running in the parliamentary elections. "I am a mother like all Malaysians who want to believe that our children are growing up in a fair and just society. A society that treats migrant workers as human beings and with dignity," Irene says. "Those in power, however, use the tools of public government to hound activists and paint them as troublemakers, anti-government, anti-development, foreign influenced. I deny all that. We are just pro-people." Irene worked to empower depressed communities in rubber plantations and squatter settlements. She joined the Consumer Association of Penang in 1976 and campaigned for women's rights, fought multinational companies selling infant formula, formed consumer clubs and organized farmers and workers to protect and defend the environment. She is a founding member of the human rights group Voice of the Malaysian People (Suaram) and the Asia Pacific Forum on Women Law and Development (APWLD). Irene is a member of the Supreme Council of the National Justice Party, an opposition political party formed in 1999.

Tenaganita (Women's Force) Voice of the Malaysian People (Suaram) Asia Pacific Forum on Women Law and Development (APWLD)