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Mourning the passing of Dr. Irene Fernandez
A powerful activist, Dr. Fernandez never stopped fighting for human rights & justice
April 1, 2014 — Pesticide Action Network (PAN) North America joins activists around the world in mourning the passing of Malaysia’s Dr. Irene Fernandez. "Dr. Fernandez was a visionary leader, great friend and mentor to many people," said PAN North America Board President Polly Hoppin. "On behalf of all of us, I offer my deep condolences to her family and colleagues."
Dr. Fernandez was a high school teacher who became a labor organizer, a politician, a prominent human rights activist, and a tireless advocate women’s rights, the environment and other issues. She was instrumental in the founding and development of many organizations, including Pesticide Action Network Asia & the Pacific (PAN AP), where she remained active as Chairperson of the Steering Council.
“Working with Irene was a constant inspiration and one of the joys of working with PAN,” stated Monica Moore, one of the U.S.-based co-founders of the PAN international network. “She never, ever stopped fighting for human rights and justice, and was relentless in focusing a bright light on people who were used up and thrown out by those more powerful than they, and forgotten by everyone else.”
Dr. Fernandez, who passed away yesterday after suffering a massive heart attack, was 67 years old. In the course of her activist career she led the Malaysian Young Christian Workers Movement, the All Women’s Action Society, Asia and Pacific Women Law and Development and other influential organizations.
In 1991, she founded Tenaganita (“women’s force” in Malay) in Kuala Lumpur, to support Malaysia’s migrant workers. Her blunt criticism of the government’s lack of support for migrant workers resulted in her being arrested and charged with “maliciously publishing false news.” She spent a year in prison and over a dozen years fighting the charge in court before being acquitted. The authorities continued to harass her, saying that she was “unpatriotic” and threatening to charge her again, under the Sedition Act. However, Dr. Fernandez never backed down from speaking out on behalf of rural communities, abused workers, victims of human trafficking and other vulnerable groups.
“Irene’s life and career exemplified the ideals of the PAN international network,” remarked Judy Hatcher, executive director of PAN North America (PANNA). “She saw how various people’s movements were connected and helped to create structures and platforms for poor and oppressed people to speak for themselves — not just in her own country, but with their counterparts across the globe. She will be sorely missed.”
“The combined force of Irene’s courage, passion, intelligence and love was incredible, and affected people around the world, including me,” said Moore.” I will always be grateful to her for this. I also know her spirit and work will continue through the lives of her family, friends, co-workers and the many, many other people she influenced in her life.”
For more about Dr. Irene Fernandez, see PAN AP's tribute to her life and work here.
Photo credit: © Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific 2013