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PUBLISHED: Apr 2, 2014 7:00am

Irene Fernandez: The voice of the voiceless

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MICHAEL MURTY By:
Michael Murty

Irene Fernandez passed away on her 35th wedding anniversary to husband Joseph Paul. — TRP pic by Wan Kah Hoong

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By Michael Murty

SEREMBAN, April 2:

Human rights advocate and vocal activist Irene Fernandez left behind strong memories for her family to hold on to.

It was perhaps even more heart-wrenching when she died on her wedding anniversary.

Her son, Camverra Jose Maliamauv, 32, remarked that it could be she was hanging on a little bit longer to make it to March 31, for her 35th anniversary with husband Joseph Paul.

In remembering her, Paul told The Rakyat Post at his wife’s wake in Seremban yesterday that Irene’s favourite commandment was: “Love one another just as I have loved you.”

That was the way she carried herself, he said, adding that she was a great companion and teacher.

    Joseph Paul says Irene was a great companion and a teacher to him. — TRP pic by Wan Kah Hoong
Joseph Paul says Irene was a great companion and a teacher to him. — TRP pic by Wan Kah Hoong

“I have had a very enriching 35 years with her by my side. She taught me a lot about her causes, about human rights and the welfare of foreign workers. She also created a great home for me and our children.

“She had a big heart and never discriminated against anyone. She was very open to anyone and everyone, something our kids learned from a very young age,” he said.

On Irene’s religious beliefs, her husband said his wife had great faith in God and believed in living out her faith.

“Religion to her was beyond worshiping on Sundays. As a devoted Catholic, she integrated religion into her everyday life,” he said.

She recited the Rosary on the way to work

Irene’s daughter, Katrina Jorene Maliamauv, 29, said her mother would recite the Rosary on the way to work every day.

“I worked with her, so every day during our commute to work, she would recite the Rosary.

“Religion and her relationship with God was a personal thing, but she always stressed that expressions in all faiths should be respected.

“She told us that fundamentally, religion is all about love, justice and goodness which was the centre and heart of her faith,” Katrina said.

She had also described her mother as a mother to everyone else.

“Our home was always open to everyone else, and that was the environment we grew up in, which I think was fantastic.

(From left) Camverra Jose Maliamauv, Tania Jo Maliamauv and Katrina Jorene Maliamauv. — TRP pic by Wan Kah Hoong
(From left) Camverra Jose Maliamauv, Tania Jo Maliamauv and Katrina Jorene Maliamauv. — TRP pic by Wan Kah Hoong

“She was an incredibly generous person and always did what was best for others. Her passing is a loss that you can’t measure.

“She taught us to love, to be courageous and to be welcoming in life and not to compromise the truth,” she said, adding that her mother was the heartbeat of the family.

Camverra said his mum was always supportive and inspirational to him, his sisters and their extended family.

“We essentially grew up with the major trial she had to go through, but she somehow managed to maintain her passion for her work and balance her family, something not many people can do.

“She was a mother to the community and the people she worked with, but never wavered in being supportive to her own family.

“Despite her work, she would insist that she cooks a meal, and by a meal means a feast,” said the Australian-based oil and gas consultant.

Irene’s son, Camverra, described his mother as the pillar of strength in the family, saying that she was someone they could talk to and would always listen to their problems.

“Her immense strength was again shown in her last few days as she battled her weakness to pull through to see me as I had just arrived from America and right up until yesterday, that marked my parents’ 35th wedding anniversary. It symbolised the fighter she always was,” he said.

Tania Jo Maliamauv, 33, who also worked with her mum as the finance administrator of Tenaganita, described Irene as “supportive and always giving”.

“She said the most important thing right now was her legacy. She had always led from the front for the younger generation, but the time has come for them to step up and carry on as she has stepped aside,” Tania said.

‘Irene was a gem’

Former United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers Datuk Param Cumaraswamy said Irene’s passion for the rights of migrant workers would go down in history.

“She had a great deal of courage as she continued her fight for the rights of migrant workers. Her work was absolutely impressive and internationally recognised.

“The UN had recognised her when she was harassed with one of the longest trials in the country under the ‘false news regulation’.  I remember taking the case to the UN council in Geneva.”

Fernandez was arrested at home with the charge of “publishing false news”.

In 2003, she was found guilty and sentenced to a year in prison, having appeared in court more than 300 times by then.

She had her passport confiscated and was not allowed to contest elections, when she was out on bail.

After a 13-year battle in court, she was finally acquitted in 2008.

(From left) Sarojeni Rengam, Datuk Param Cumaraswamy and Dorothy Fernandez. — TRP pic by Wan Kah Hoong
(From left) Sarojeni Rengam, Datuk Param Cumaraswamy and Dorothy Fernandez. — TRP pic by Wan Kah Hoong

Param said for the kind of work she did, Irene was recognised and respected by human rights defenders all around the world as well as international non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

“Her trial was unnecessary and she was harassed because she was considered a thorn in the government’s side for fighting for the rights of migrant workers.

“She will be deeply missed,” he said.

The Nippon Foundation Fellowships for Asian Public Intellectuals (API Fellowship Program) programme coordinator Dorothy Fernandez said Irene was more of a “public intellectual” rather than an “activist”.

“She had the intellectual capabilities of addressing issues that are in the public domain, like our rights and freedom.

“She was substantively knowledgeable with not just local but international issues. What worries me is who is capable of replacing her?

“She was a giant in this area of work and I am hardpressed to imagine who will now do this work. It is a big gap that must be filled though.”

Dorothy recalled Irene as a very brave and courageous woman who was never afraid to air her views.

“She was not intimidated with threats of imprisonment. She was the heart and soul of her causes. Her health suffered as the consequence of that.”

Dorothy called Irene the “voice of the voiceless”.

“The people (migrant workers) she was fighting for needed a voice because they were at the mercy of agencies that were involved. That is where Irene stepped in,” she added.

Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific (PAN AP) executive director Sarojeni Rengam said Irene was immense in the empowerment of agricultural workers and the rights of rural women.

“Irene, who was the chairman of PAN AP, was instrumental in the setting up of strong women’s leadership programmes and fighting for the rights of rural women, whom she called the most marginalised women.”

Dorothy described Irene as giving and selfless.

“She was a mentor for a lot of people. She was an adviser and a far-sighted strategist.”

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