©The Sun Daily (Used by permission)
by Annie Freeda Cruez
SHE was a human rights activist till she breathed her last at 10.58am today.
That is none other than Tenaganita director Irene Fernandez (pix), 68, who died after complications due to a heart failure.
She was admitted to the Serdang hospital last Tuesday, after complaining of breathing difficulties, while on her way to attend the Bersih People's Tribunal on the 13th General Election.
Having interviewed her on several occasions, her demise is a loss as she has been known for her outstanding and courageous work to stop violence against women and abuse of migrant and poor workers.
She is never afraid to be in the forefront to fight her cause and this was clearly seen when she continued working, even when a conviction and year's prison sentence hung over her head on a charge of "maliciously publishing false news."
Born in 1946, Irene has three children and several foster children. She began her career as a high school teacher and was involved with the Young Christian Workers Movement (YCWM), 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 YCWM in 1972–75 and was a member of the international committee from 1973–75.
During that time, she organised 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.
Irene's campaigns for the rights of foreign workers, up to three million of whom are in Malaysia, began after she founded Tenaganita in 1991.
The organisation 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, Irene Fernandez published a report on the living conditions of the migrant workers entitled "Abuse, Torture and Dehumanised Conditions of Migrant Workers in Detention Centres.
In March 1996, Fernandez was arrested at home and charged with "maliciously publishing false news". Her trial became the longest in Malaysian history and 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.
Finally, in 2008, after 13 years of battle in court, she was acquitted.
Despite all this, Irene never stopped doing what she wanted to do and I am sure she found lots of satisfaction and happiness in her work and success.