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Aegile Fernandez

(1 SEPTEMBER 1948 – 9 MARCH 2021
A Director of Tenaganita from 1 Nov 2011 until 9 March 2021

Who is Aegile Fernandez

Aegile joined Tenaganita in 1993 when her sister Irene was setting up a migrant and human trafficking desk in Tenaganita.

Social worker
Aegile started social work when she was 16 years old, and went on to work with prisoners, sex workers, drug addicts, HIV/Aids patients, domestic abuse victims, refugees, human trafficking victims, and abused children.

“Ask me not what’s my race or creed, just take me in my hour of need”

Aegile Fernandez

Aegile's life : A timeline

Aegile and Tenaganita pioneered Coordination of Action Research on Aids and Mobility (CARAM Asia). CARAM Asia carries out research, advocacy, and capacity building to create an enabling environment that empowers migrants and their communities to reduce HIV vulnerability. It also promotes and protects the health rights of Asian migrant workers globally. CARAM Asia developed into a network of 26 member organizations, now covering 16 countries in Asia.
To better reach and assist victimized women, Aegile developed a co-operative relationship with the Malaysian Royal Police. The co-operative effort established Malaysia’s first “Domestic Worker Action Hotline” in 2004. The hotline is an avenue for domestic workers, abused by their employers, to get in touch with Tenaganita. The NGO then coordinates with the police to rescue the workers. She is a leader in the campaign for better working conditions for migrant workers. She consistently worked to increase the awareness of the public, the Malaysian government and diplomatic representatives on abuses among migrant workers, especially those most vulnerable to trafficking in the areas of domestic work, construction, and service industries. Aegile endured significant harassment, including multiple invasions of her home, as a result of her advocacy for abused migrant workers in the late 1990’s.
Aegile established one of the Malaysia’s first shelters for trafficked victims, attracting U.S. funding from PRM. She tirelessly works with the government to identify trafficking victims, especially those trapped in prostitution. The Malaysian police acknowledged the shelter’s efforts to counsel and protect trafficked victims. Police regularly coordinate with her to provide a temporary safe haven for suspected trafficking victims rescued by police. Aegile continues to carry out her anti-trafficking work in the face of constant threats and harassment from vice syndicates and unscrupulous recruiting agents. In 2006, Aegile also expanded her focus to include stateless street children in the East Malaysian state of Sabah. Illegal immigration into Sabah, especially from the Philippines and Indonesia, is creating a long-term problem of undocumented children, left behind after their parents or other family members are deported to the home countries. These children, unable to prove their nationality, often must fend for themselves to survive. Aegile and Tenganita continue to lobby the Malaysian government to recognize the children born in Sabah and provide them with birth certificates, public services like health care and education, and foster families. Apart from these activities, Aegile advocates on the behalf of former prisoners and drug dependents and their need for rehabilitation. With the assistance of government agencies involved in these activities, Aegile visits prisons and drug rehabilitation centers in the country and counsels the inmates. She also has lobbied the government to provide facilities for these former prisoners and drug dependents to be able to sustain themselves economically after they have been released from prison and rehabilitation centers.”

Aegile's Story

I WORKED IN MORE THAN 22 JOBS. From being a waitress, petrol pump attendant, factory worker, to a door-to-door salesperson. You name it, I’ve done it. If I were not there with the workers, I would not understand their issues and problems, or how to organise them.

I got kicked out so many times for trying to organise my co-workers. I would get kicked out from one hotel and go to work at another hotel, until I think it was at the sixth hotel that I found out I was blacklisted from all hotels in Kuala Lumpur!

When I moved  to the restaurant industry, I realised that these five-star restaurants were deducting money from my co-workers’ salaries monthly for accidentally scratching or breaking wine glasses.

These experiences made me question arbitrary salary deductions.  I began fighting for what workers should have been getting.

I realized that the Labour Department only acted when someone walked into their office and complained. But all these workers are not going to come to you, I told them, because they are afraid of losing their jobs.

While working with  people living with AIDS , my friend Catherine and I were picking up  bodies and burying people  of all races and religions while the authorities stood far away writing notes, telling us to wrap the bodies in garbage bags. In the 1980s, no one wanted to help people on the streets who were drug dependant and had HIV/AIDS.

I would see these young girls who worked as sex workers, on my way to work along Petaling Street and wondered how I could help them.

So I went to sit in a coffee shop and got to know these girls when they came by.  I got to know about their lives, their experiences .. I became a friend and a sister to them.

With all the people I worked with, it was important for me to first  be their friend, to understand all that surrounds them and why they were in those situations.

In the process I learned about the whole issue, like how drugs are not just about the person buying it but also about how they come into the country and how they get sold. I learned about these new worlds that few even knew existed.

These people became my family.  Those who were shunned by society were the first to offer to buy me food and take me to the hospital when I fell ill. It was much more than what my friends, who were busy with their lives, were willing to do.

I was reluctant to join Tenaganita when Irene asked me in 1993.  In all my years of social work I had never joined any organisation because I did not want to be limited by rules and regulations.

I had already been working with migrants and survivors of human trafficking since the 1980s, so when Irene said,  “With all your experience, come and set up a migrant and human trafficking desk, I said I would give it a try.

Hardly anyone knew about Human Trafficking in those days. Most Malaysians were unaware that people were being brought into our country, sold and exploited.  Tenaganita became a platform  to unite all my advocacy work especially when working with authorities.

In the 1990s, many women from rural areas in Malaysia were coming into the city to work in the free trade zones, in the electronic industry.  Filipino and Indonesian domestic workers were also coming to Malaysia at this time. Tenaganita became a platform where these communities would seek help.

I will not stop until I am in the coffin  or in the ground. As long as I have a body that can work, I will continue. There is no such thing as retiring. There is still so much to do. So much to teach the young people to take over.

Tributes to Aegile Fernandez

“.. one of Malaysia’s most influential rights activists…. She dedicated her life to the selfless and unrelenting pursuit of justice and fairness for everyone, regardless of race, gender or nationality”. — Amnesty International Malaysia

“For decades she fought for the rights of migrants and Malaysians selflessly and worked towards a more tolerant, kind and inclusive world” – Bridget Welsh University of Nottingham Malaysia. 

She was a gem, truly genuine human rights advocate, passionate and relentless in the pursuit of rights for the most vulnerable, especially migrant workers.” –  Eric Paulsen, lawyer and social commentator.

“Aegile was a leading voice in championing the rights of the marginalized and vulnerable individuals. She worked tirelessly to provide an avenue for these voices to be heard globally.We are proud to call her an alumna of our 

State IVLP, as well as a nominee for the International Women of Courage award, which recognizes women around the world who have shown courage and leadership in advocating for peace, human rights, & women’s empowerment.” -US Embassy, Malaysia

Excerpt from Aegile’s nomination for the 2008 Secretary’s Award for International Women of Courage

“Embassy Kuala Lumpur nominates Aegile Fernandez, co-founder and coordinator for migrant and refugee affairs at the NGO Tenaganita (“Women’s Power”), to receive the Secretary’s award as an International Woman of Courage. Aegile has demonstrated exceptional courage and commitment to defending trafficked victims, refugees, migrant and local plantation workers, and stateless street children; she has done so in the face of threats and harassment from vice syndicates and others opposed to her role. Under her active co-leadership, Tenaganita has brought protection, comfort and hope to the lives of tens of thousands of vulnerable women and children, becoming Malaysia’s leading and most effective NGO working on the issues of trafficking in persons, migrant and plantation workers, and street children.

Tributes to Aegile