Thank You, Irene Asia’s voice against censorship

 On Jumat, 11 April 2014  

Thank You, Irene Asia’s voice against censorship

Ati Nurbaiti  ;   A staff writer at The Jakarta Post
JAKARTA POST, 10 April 2014
If there were more individuals like Irene Fernandez, the leading Malaysian activist who passed away on March 31, perhaps reports on our migrant workers would not be so bleak. To see much faster progress in this situation, we would need many more men and women like the feisty and fearless Irene.

But we would also need a much larger, safer open space for people to speak up in the countries where our migrants head to, countries like Malaysia and Saudi Arabia. For Fernandez’s critical legacy is her unwillingness to bow to censorship.

Her work shows how transparency and demands for human rights are Asian, not Western, basic needs and values.

Malaysians and Indonesians are among the Asian nations often upset over reports from international human rights groups, however, human rights abuses exposed by Fernandez were not pleasant to hear either.

In the wake of her passing at 67 years old, following illness, Indonesian activists thanked Fernandez for what they described as a source of inspiration from her persistent energy, warmth, encouragement as well as focused and sharp analysis — not to mention from humor and a love of dance.

Last week’s celebration of Fernandez’s life hosted by the National Commission for Violence against Women (Komnas Perempuan), featured stories of her contribution from the international to local stage: from the recommendation to state parties on women migrant workers in the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), based on Fernandez’s study on migrant workers’ conditions — to her personal touch, such as checking whether troubled migrants in Malaysia had finally reached their homes in Karawang, West Java.

Fernandez’s work reminds us that even incremental progress can only be achieved with constant digging of otherwise tightly covered and unacknowledged facts. Her organization Tenaganita had exposed what the Malaysian media could not: the death of dozens of Bangladeshi workers from reportedly preventable causes of beriberi, a sign of malnutrition, in an illegal detention camp.

Initial reports in 1995 had come from journalists of Malaysian newspaper The Sun, but when they found the story could not be reported, they handed it over to Tenaganita, writes Steven Gan, one of the journalists and a founder of Malaysiakini.

Fernandez’s subsequent arrest for “false news” on the Bangladeshis, and a seven-year trial, failed to dampen her spirit; she was acquitted in 2008. She was investigated by police again over a statement made to The Jakarta Post in 2012, that Malaysia was “completely not” safe for Indonesian migrant

Indonesians are among the millions indebted to Fernandez; her study taken up by the UN shed light on the condition of the world’s migrant workers, especially the large proportion of female maids from countries including Indonesia, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. With Asian activists she helped push the dramatic move to include Middle Eastern countries in the protection of their Asian migrant workers, former commissioners of Komnas Perempuan said.

Fernandez, herself the daughter of a South Indian migrant worker, would argue strongly how migrant labor policies should take into account experiences specific to women, from their countries of origin to their designated workplaces.

As the activists said at the remembrance event, her work not only contributed to recommendations for better policies for migrant workers in the UN Convention, but also significantly empowered female activists.

Consider that it was in Hong Kong, not the so-called favorite migrant workers’ destinations of Malaysia or Saudi Arabia, where Indonesian maids set up their first union — and not even in Indonesia — meaning that for all our democracy, our feudalism has not enabled maids to speak up for themselves. Unlike the Indonesian domestic workers flocking Hong Kong’s Victoria Park on their days off, local maids mostly don’t even have Sundays off. Our freedoms since reformasi, however, have led to a wider push for freedom of expression and human rights, a movement also growing in other countries including Malaysia.

Meanwhile in Middle Eastern countries our diplomats complain of limited personnel to handle the scores of reports mainly from domestic workers. Without adequate channels for their grievances, one can only imagine that in extreme cases, desperate women turn into murderers.

We may be criticized for going overboard with our press freedom, yet, our society still tramples on its own domestic workers.

But if even just for the sake of our fellow citizens toiling far from home, including Satinah binti Jumadi Ahmad who faces execution in Saudi Arabia for murdering her employer, Indonesians must support movements to widen safe public space to air grievances in largely closed societies.

In particular, press workers in profitable media outlets should be embarrased that it takes individuals like Irene Fernandez to shake up public awareness of what happens to migrants who help reduce widespread unemployment and poverty in their home countries.
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