“Without doubt, she will be a big loss not only to the movement in Malaysia but to the global movement that is striving for a just and better world for the poor and oppressed.” – Sarojeni Rengam, Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific
By RONALYN V. OLEA
MANILA – Irene Fernandez, a migrants’ rights defender, peasant advocate and women’s rights activist, passed away on March 31 due to heart failure. She was 67 years old.
Migrante International, an organization of overseas Filipino workers, described Hernandez as a “warrior for migrants’ rights.”
In 1996, she was charged by the Malaysian government with “maliciously publishing false news” for writing a report on the horrific conditions of migrant workers in Malaysia, including the plight of Filipino migrant workers in Sabah detention cells. Her 13-year trial was the longest in Malaysian history. She was convicted in 2003 but was released on bail. She appealed the decision to the High Court that eventually dropped the charges against her in 2008.
Fernandez was the director and co-founder of Tenaganita, an organization that runs a shelter for women migrants who were victims of human trafficking and abuse.
In a previous interview with New Internationalist, Fernandez said, “If people’s lives are at risk, how can you sit back and pretend you don’t know?”
Fernandez was the vice chairperson of the International Migrants’ Alliance (IMA), a broad alliance of 118 migrant groups from 25 countries.
Fernandez went to the Philippines several times.
In March 2007, she served as one of the jurors of the Permanent People’s Tribunal (PPT)’s second session on the Philippines. The international tribunal declared then president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and the United States government guilty of crimes against humanity.
Then, in November 2012, Fernandez served as an expert witness for the International Migrants’ Tribunal (IMT) on the Global Forum on Migration and Development. The tribunal declared 37 states guilty of violating migrants’ rights.
For the oppressed
The Asian Peasant Coalition (APC) quoted Fernandez as saying, “I am a daughter of a rubber plantation worker and it is not just my responsibility but it is my principles that tells me that it is a priority to struggle for people’s liberation from oppression and injustice. ”
Both her parents were from India who became migrant workers in Malaysia.
At the time of her death, Fernandez was also vice chairperson for internal affairs of the APC, a coalition of farmers and farmworkers from nine countries in Asia.
On the APC’s tenth year in December 2013, Fernandez was awarded as one of the recipients of the Outstanding Peasants in the Struggle for Land.
The Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific (PAN AP) also paid tribute to Fernandez, who served as the group’s chairperson.
“Without doubt, she will be a big loss not only to the movement in Malaysia but to the global movement that is striving for a just and better world for the poor and oppressed,” Sarojeni Rengam, executive director of the Penang-based regional advocacy group, said.
“PAN AP will be forever grateful to Irene for her untiring guidance. With the help of her leadership and invaluable advice, we have been able to faithfully fulfill our commitment to serve the interests of small food producers, defend their rights, and advance their welfare. Words could not describe how much PAN AP will miss her and her insights that had firmly stood for the small farmers, agricultural workers, migrants, women, indigenous peoples and other marginalized sectors,” Rengam added.
Fernandez was also among the founders of the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD) and a former executive member of the Committee on Asian Women, aside from helping establish various women’s and human rights organizations in Malaysia.
Fernandez had received other awards for her advocacy to stop violence against women and migrant workers. Among these were the Human Rights Watch Award in 1996; the Amnesty International Award in 1998; the International PEN Award in 2000; the Jonathan Mann Award in 2004; and the Right to Livelihood Award in 2005.
In its tribute, the IMA said, “Her [Fernandez’s] passion for social justice, her siding with the oppressed, her many years of commitment and conviction will serve as fuel to many of us who will continue the work that she has left behind.”
“The IMA will remember the strength, the passion and the selflessness that Irene has imparted to many of us. We remember her through her words:’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.’”