Our Founder

Irene Fernandez

Founder's Quote


"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. The challenge is that even as we deconstruct the old, we dare to imagine and win over people to our visions and programs for the new."


A mom, a dedicated human rights activist, a teacher, a PKR supreme council member, director and founder of the Tenaganita, but in all things she was an inspiration.

Irene is best remembered as a champion of the oppressed in Malaysia whose indefatigable advocacy for better treatment of foreign migrant workers prompted her government to denounce her and human rights groups throughout the globe to support her call to action.

Her signature crusade was for the rights of the poorest and most marginalized people: migrant workers, plantation workers, domestic workers, sex workers, refugees and AIDS sufferers.

As she unearthed evidence of migrant beatings and near starvation. In an interview with The New York Times in 2012, she characterised the situation as “slavery days coming back". Irene never stopped working, even when a conviction and year's prison sentence hung over her head on the trumped-up charge of "maliciously publishing false news".

In addition to raising three children and several foster children, Irene began her career as a high school teacher.

At 23, she left the security of a government job for the uncertain life of an activist, working for various labor and rights groups, including the Young Christian Workers Movement (YCM), based in Brussels.

In 1970, Irene gave up her teaching career to become a full-time organiser for young workers. She became national president of the Malaysian YCW from 1972-1975 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 and improve consumer education. She also focused on the development of women leaders in the labour movement.

In 1976, Irene 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 protection of the environment. She also began a consumer programme for rural women, linked to a breast-feeding campaign and the Nestlé boycott.

Irene became involved with several women’s rights campaigns, and helped, through her work with those organisations, to pass certain laws relating to violence against women.

Various women's groups were birthed 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 founding member of Asia Pacific Women Law and Development (APWLD). This regional organisation was designed to bring together female lawyers and activists to look at law affecting women across the Far East. She was director for more than 10 years.

During the early 1990s, Irene was working very closely with women workers in the plantation and electronics sector. Later on, Irene got more involved with anti-trafficking work.

In 1991, Irene formed Tenaganita in Kuala Lumpur – with the mission to protect and promote the rights for migrants, refugees, and trafficked women and children.

From 1992, Irene 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.

In her years of work, Irene was harassed repeatedly by certain parties for her activism.

In 1995, Tenaganita published a report on the abuse of migrant workers, cataloguing the malnutrition, physical and sexual abuse and the appalling conditions the workers endure, and setting out the facts about the detention camps where physical violence is law. The research included interviews with as many as 300 migrant workers.

As a result of the publication, the Malaysian government was forced to admit that 46 people indeed had died of various medical conditions in their detention centres.

In March 1996, Irene was arrested at her home and convicted under the Printing Presses and Publications Act of 1984 with "maliciously publishing false news.

Her trial became the longest in Malaysian history and many of the witnesses she was relying on were deported, preventing her from making her defense. Her criminal trial dragged on for seven years.

Stanley Augustin, the prosecutor, accused her of blackening her country’s reputation. “The court must take into account the interests of the nation,” he said. “Freedom of the press is not freedom to say anything you like. It must be confined and cannot hurt the public or national interest.”

In 2003, she was 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 the government used her conviction to bar her from running for parliament in the 2004 Malaysian elections. On 24 November 2008, Justice Mohd Apandi Ali overturned her earlier conviction and acquitted her, ending the thirteen-year case.

Despite harassment and intimidation, Irene courageously refused to allow the situation limit her work or blunt her message – even when the prison term hung over her head. She never used or advocated violence and have 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 throughout her trial. During her trial, she told The Los Angeles Times that she was ready for jail. "It will give me an opportunity to write a report on jail conditions and see what changes need to be made,” she said.

Irene never lost her zeal for battle.

Irene left us on 31 March 2014 at the age of 67, due to a heart failure.

Irene has received numerous awards over the course of her life. Here are some of them:


Human Rights Watch honored Irene with their human rights monitor reward for her tireless work and leadership


Amnesty International Award


The International PEN Award in 2000


Jonathan Mann Award in 2004


Right Livelihood Award in Stockholm for her outstanding and courageous work to stop violence against women and abuses of migrant and poor workers In recognition of her tireless work and leadership. Read More


Trafficking in Persons Report Hero Award which includes her work related to the protection of migrant workers, including preventative measures such as pre-departure information sessions and assistance in the surrounding countries.

“The cause of human rights has lost a staunch fighter who courageously stood up in defence of fairness and the just treatment of unfortunate migrant workers who are often exploited and mistreated by unscrupulous employers and agencies. She was dedicated and determined in pursuing her cause for the welfare of the downtrodden. And like all human rights advocates everywhere, she was persecuted by a government that does not brook any defiance by anyone in the pursuit of justice.”

The Aliran human rights group recognized the bravery of Irene who was viciously persecuted by the government

“The political tyrants made life unfairly difficult for this intrepid, irrepressible and humble Malaysian ‘Joan of Arc’ of maltreated migrants and repressed refugees in her country. It is hard to speak of Irene without recalling the hostile environment where the authorities are unwilling to be scrutinised and held accountable for their deeds. She overcame the untold hardships she suffered at the hands of the overbearing authorities that had harassed her. As I write, I recall the strength of this remarkable woman in whose stoic countenance were etched the sufferings of a saintly woman, sufferings not the fruit of personal making but from helping the helpless in their pitiful plight."

Steve Oh described Irene as Malaysia's 'Joan of Arc' of maltreated migrants

“...a champion of the weak, the poor and the marginalized, and a fighter of true grit in the face of persecution and constant harassment by the authorities. Indeed, also a sad personal loss as she had been a close family friend and my colleague since our Malaysian Youth Council days”

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim also paid tribute to Irene

“None of the persecution and harassment she faced doused her spirit to fight on. She, in fact, waged wars that were truly inspirational for the younger generation. Her commitment to human rights and justice is legendary. We all aim to leave an imprint as we end our journey on earth. Irene leaves behind a legacy which will continue to not just fight for the rights of the oppressed and underprivileged, but also continue to inspire others to be courageous in the face of adversity and to soldier on to fight for what they believe in."

Klang MP Charles Santiago summed up the legacy of Irene

“Center for Women’s Resources is one with the people who deeply mourn Dr. Irene Fernandez's death. We give honor to a great woman who was so supportive of our struggle and advocacy. She was a citizen of the world, an activist without borders, a real internationalist”

Philippine-based Center for Women's Resources

“I can only say that death ends a life but not a relationship. Irene Fernandez is not only in the history book of Malaysia as a great human rights defender but she is living forever with the Chin people too. Goodbye my friend, here is my last word to you, ” you will never die because you are a living symbol of a woman's courage.”

On Facebook, Victor Sang Khambil remembered Irene as a fighter in behalf of the Chin people in Malaysia

“Irene’s sudden death shocked us and we are very saddened. However, our beloved Irene will always inspire us. We call on the people who were inspired by her sincere work to translate their sympathy into a more painstaking work to serve the oppressed people. We will continue her legacy. We will continue our struggle for genuine agrarian reform and food sovereignty!”

The Asian Peasant Coalition mentioned Irene's agrarian reform advocacy

“People throughout Malaysia and around the world had great respect for her long record of fighting on behalf of the poor and marginalized. A few years earlier, the State Department acknowledged Irene as one of ten leading activists around the world working to end modern-day slavery. The United States Government could not have found a better person to honor. We were all moved by her conviction and her contribution to promoting respect for human rights in Malaysia. We will all truly miss Irene’s passion, dedication and, above all, her friendship”

Ambassador Joseph Y. Yun expressed sadness over the passing of Irene

Connect with us

If you would like to keep up to date with our work, you may provide us your details as below

Meet With Us
12, Jalan 6/11
46000 Petaling Jaya
Selangor Darul Ehsan, Malaysia
+603 7770 3671 / 3691
+6012 335 0512, +6012 339 5350