Tenaganita Protecting & Promoting the Rights of Women, Migrants & Refugees in Malaysia: An Interview with Glorene A Das, Executive Director of Tenanagita Women’s Force

Background of  Tenaganita

Inspired by the struggles of women workers in plantations and industrial sectors of Malaysia, Dr Irene Fernandez, a daughter of migrant workers herself, founded Tenaganita in 1991 in an attempt to fight for women’s rights, secure decent wages and end discrimination and gender-based violence. Today, Tenaganita wants to ensure all women, migrant workers and refugees are treated with dignity and that they are not denied their rights because of their gender, nationality or ethnicity.

Interview with Glorene A Das

Asianthinker.com caught up with Glorene A Das, Executive Director of Teniganta to learn more about the background of the NGO, how she became involved and what some of its challenges are as she looks to the future of its programs in Malaysia, especially regarding the issue of Rohinga refugees.

Tell us about when you first joined Tenaganita

“When I first walked into Tenaganita’s office in 1999, at the age 27, I knew nothing about human rights. During my first week, I had to spend time at the library to learn what human rights meant” confesses Glorene. “I had never related to the migrant and refugee population before, and what I did not know at the time was that my understanding changed drastically – their fight would soon become mine.”

“In 2010, I became the program director and one of the board directors of the organisation. I was responsible for the conceptualisation and the implementation of the programs in Tenaganita. My team was dedicated to supporting the communities of migrants, refugees, women and children at the national, regional and international levels at different platforms / networks.”

“In 2014, after the sudden passing of Tenaganita’ founder, Dr Irene Fernandez, I took on the role of the Executive Director and lead the organisation in the direction of the founder, with a vision for a just, free and democratic society where all are equal human beings with dignity and rights.”

As part of your role we understand Tenaganita manages a number of key social programmes focusing on migrant workers, refugees, asylum seekers, domestic workers and trafficked women. Can you explain some of the key programmes?

“During the last 27 years, Tenaganita has built new initiatives with some of the most marginalised communities nationally and regionally in order to protect these rights and so that women, workers or refugees can achieve their potential and free themselves from the what we see as a web of slavery,” explains Glorene.

“Today, my team focuses on working with women, migrant workers, refugees and for persons in a trafficked situation. Our programs are aimed at empowering communities through awareness programs, such as assisting migrants to assert their rights and seek redress for rights violations through case management, legal support and advocating for policy change. We reach out to vulnerable groups like domestic workers, trafficked women, children, refugees and plantations workers.”

“Tenaganita has four key program areas: Migrant Rights Protection, Refugee Action Program, Anti Trafficking in Person, Shelter for Women & Children in Crisis (with an emphasis on trafficked women and children),” she explains.

“Our main activities within the program are case management, legal Support, advocacy programs (campaigns on right to redress & campaigns to recognise domestic work as work), information sharing and partnership building.”

What are some of the social issues confronting Tenaganita today? Especially in relation to your work with Myanmar refugees?

 “Since the 1990’s, Tenaganita has been handling cases of refugees on a case-to-case basis for resettlement and applications of permanent residency in Malaysia.”

“Refugees have been seeking asylum in Malaysia for many years but the world’s attention has been particularly focused on the plight of those fleeing from persecution in Myanmar in May 2015” says Glorene. “Many became victims of trafficking; held in camps on the Thai border while awaiting ransom payments where many lost their lives,” she continues. “Those refugees that survived the perilous journey to Malaysia are faced with new challenges such as accessing services and the assistance of UNHCR, access to health care, education and work. Tenaganita has been speaking up and highlighting refugee issues for many years and we continue to seek out ways to empower the communities through education and training.”

“According to the UNHCR, as of November 2017, there are 152,420 registered refugees and asylum seekers. However, this only encompasses the number of refugees and asylum seekers currently registered with the UNHCR in Malaysia,” Glorene explains. “From this number, it was reported that there are 133,580 Burmese refugees and asylum seekers, 65,250 Rohingya, 34,140 Chins, 9,920 Myanmar Muslims and 4,100 Rakhines and Arakaneses, and other Burmese ethnic minorities.”

“To date, Tenaganita’s project with The Coalition of Burma Ethnics in Malaysia (COBEM) has collectively registered 250,524 community members. However, it is worth noting that this number is not a true reflection of the current population of COBEM community members as it has proven difficult to keep track of members who have been voluntarily repatriated, resettled or those who have passed away since the registration of their memberships,” she continues.

“Malaysia is still yet to be a signatory to the UN Convention relating to the status of refugees. Hence, refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia continue to experience various struggles in surviving in the country. Due to the non-recognition of refugees and asylum seekers, there is an extreme lack of protection for these displaced groups of individuals. The Malaysian government embarked on a pilot work project last year, giving Rohingya men in Malaysia work opportunities in two selected sectors: manufacturing and plantation. However, this opportunity was only extended to male members of the Rohingya community, and not to any other refugee groups, including individuals from other Burmese minority ethnic groups.”

“Education continues to remain a problem among refugee communities, with lack of funding resulting in the downsizing or complete closure of COBEM community schools,” explains Glorene. “Even for refugee children who have the opportunity to study in community-run or other refugee schools, the main issue lies within the absence of any proper certification, legitimising their academic pursuits.”

Tell us more about your refugee action program?

“Tenaganita has been assisting refugees, including Rohingya refugees, in several areas such as labour rights violations, arrest and detention, assisting in refugee registration, employment for refugee women and Sexual-Gender Based Violence (SGBV). Additionally, since 2016 Tenagita and Colorado University have been working together in researching and Intervention measures with Intimate Partner Abuse (IPA) among the Rohingya Community in the district of Gombak, Kuala Lumpur.”

“This work requires Tenaganita to be able to provide specific and appropriate assistance for SGBV survivors, more specifically intimate partner abuse survivors. Thus, Tenaganita’s shelter, which has been serving human trafficking survivors for many years, also needs to be adapted to provide assistance to SGBV survivors. This is necessary as it is generally difficult for refugee women to access protection or safe spaces through public facilities,” Glorene explains.

Combating Gender Based Violence against Refugees:

“From 2007 to 2009, Tenaganita organised and operated an intensive, community-oriented intervention program to empower refugee women and communities to combat gender-based violence (GBV). Through our proven community-based approach, we were able to create awareness on GBV related issues among the refugee communities and host communities.”

“In addition to this”, continues Golorene, “by training community animators and community health workers on issues of GBV related to health and victim/survivor’s rights, our program has improved the capacity of the community to respond to GBV related violations. The Tenaganita team also works with a small pool of men and women refugee “gender facilitators” in order to address GBV in their communities. We are however continuously seeking for funding to continue and expand our work with refugees.”

Legal and Psychosocial Support and Intervention:

“Tenaganita collaborates with the Legal Aid Centre and Malaysian Bar Council to provide legal support on behalf of refugees who face human rights violations. Through our case management, we have addressed the issues of labor rights violations, arrest and detention, rescues of trafficking survivors, domestic workers rescue, sexual and gender based violence experienced by migrant/refugee women, refugee status determination and child brides.”

Strengthening Community-Based Organisations:

“Tenaganita supports and strengthens the work of eight community-based organisations (CBOs) comprising refugees from various ethnic backgrounds from Burma,”explains Glorene. “Burmese refugees formed these CBOs for the purpose of collective organisation to assist, empower, and protect their respective communities. We are also working towards making healthcare services accessible, develop education-related opportunities for refugee children who are deprived of attending public schools in Malaysia, and assist community members to negotiate wages and take action against labour violations.”

Livelihood and Psychosocial Support for Refugee Women:

“Recognising the critical need for safe and sustainable livelihood opportunities, Tenaganita currently hosts Tanma Federation, a fair-trade cooperative formed and led by Burmese refugee women in Malaysia. Together with these women refugees Tenaganita collaboratively conducts trainings on skills development, financial management, livelihood management, and community management.”

“Tenaganita creates a safe space for all women who are affected (as mentioned above) through shelter, care, support, security and a trusted environment,” continues Glorene. “The two shelters maintain the confidentiality of each person’s record. It also practices a non-discrimination policy, and takes in people regardless of ethnic background, colour, religion, political or other opinion, nationality or social origin, property, birth or status.”

From where do you draw your support, both locally and internationally? How do you work with these groups?

“Tenaganita receives limited funding resources based on the projects from international organisations and bodies, faith-based organisations and goreign government funds.”

“However, we continue to raise funds at a national level and have been receiving and overflow of encouragement and motivation from the affected communities of migrants, refugees, women and children whom we work with at the grassroots levels,” says Glorene. “Over the years we have also been drawing our support from overseas organisations in countries such as Indonesia, Cambodia, Philippines, Bangladesh, India and Nepal as well as local bodies such as the Malaysian trade Union, who have similar goals in working towards increasing the protection of migrant workers.”

“Tenaganita runs the Legal Aid Clinic in partnership with Legal Aid Center (Bar Council) for the young lawyers, better known as pupils, where the young lawyers from the Legal Aid Centre provide support and intervention in case management. The program has been successful in sensitising young lawyers on issues and realities faced by migrant workers, refugees and trafficked women and children as well as the global implication on migration. It has also developed a network of lawyers for legal support.”

How do you interact with local authorities and national authorities? What support, if any, have they provided?

“This has been a struggle for us through the years, as Tenaganita continues to be a critical voice when it comes to the issues of non-enforcement, non-implementation of legislation / policies, discriminatory policies, corruption, abuse of power and cronyism etc.” says Glorene.

“However, there is certainly a form of respect given to Tenaganita, because we continue to voice these exploitations based on the relevant issues with facts, evidence and details. Therefore the authorities and government agencies see Tenaganita as an important multi stakeholder.”

“In the course of rescuing women / children and men from an abusive situation, Tenaganita has been working with the Royal Malaysian Police since 2004, through their 24-hour hotline. A referral system has been established with the police for rescue and investigations. Tenaganita, together with the Royal Malaysian Police, have responded immediately to about 3000 women, migrants and children.”

What are some of the key challenges that your organisation faces?

“The main challenge is most definitely funding for the organisation, in the sustainability of the activities and programs with communities of people at the margin. There are more than 7 million migrants and refugees in Malaysia; as such we need to have solid resources to support these communities,” says Glorene. “Other challenges our team face include: lobbying government to put in place a comprehensive policy for recruitment, placement and employment of migrant workers as well as putting in place bilateral agreement with countries.”

“Ambiguous government policies on refugees / migrants and labour facilitates the absence of proper legal protection mechanism, employers are not held accountable and refugees and migrants continue to be susceptible to a range of vulnerabilities and abuses. However, the greatest challenge continues to be working with various authorities, as the reporting mechanism has a lot of protocols and policy keeps changing, which most of the time delays case management. There is often a lack of cooperation from embassies in regards to repatriation,” she continues.

“An increase in psychosocial and social problems within the refugees communities is getting higher. The impact of displacement often triggers shifts and changes in the refugee family dynamics. Negative settlement experience and stress-inducing circumstances surrounding displacement, such as unemployment and deprivation of basic needs have a strong correlation with family conflicts, and violence within the family. The lack of support systems within the refugee communities present to address these issues induces survivors to seek for assistance from the local organisations and communities.”

Tell us about some of the success stories of your organisation?

“From 2015 – 2017 Tenaganita trained 611 migrant workers and refugees as community case workers / peer leaders / community paralegals and community leaders in Reproductive Health, Occupational Safety and Health and Workman’s Compensation Act, Labor Laws & Policies, Penal Code (Arrest and Detention) and Health rights of migrants and refugees. We also equipped them on case management skills in evidence gathering and leadership development.”

“During this period of time Tenaganita Shelter for Women in Crisis and Survivors of Human Trafficking has housed 467 women, 22 children and 9 infants, whom all have been safely repatriated to their families in their homelands,” says Glorene. “Tenaganita managed to close and settle 1753 cases and 2784 migrants were safely repatriated after the settlement and closing of these cases.”

“Tenaganita, in collaboration with Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Legal Aid Centre Bar Council has established a network of lawyers who would be committed to represent affected workers for a longer term for legal redresses on a pro-bono basis, as well as be involved in advocacy actions / campaign / reform of policies and law to increase the protection of migrant workers and refugees,” she continues.

“Tenaganita has organised three migrant associations with the Nepali, Bangladeshi and Burmese workers. Tenaganita, in many ways, has become “a household” name for migrant workers, media and the authorities. Today we are recognised as one of the key organsations that is responding effectively to the protection of migrant workers, refugees, domestic workers and women trafficked for labour and sex.”

What changes to you see for Tenganita in the future?

“One of the key campaigns is the ‘Campaign to Recognize Domestic Workers as Workers.’ Under current legalisation, domestic workers are referred to as domestic servants, maids and helpers; as such the Employment Act in Malaysia does not cover them. Tenaganita, as part of a coalition, is proposing a new law ensuring the all domestic workers are properly protected and have the right to redress and access to justice. As Malaysia has ratified CEDAW, Tenaganita will continue to advocate to an end all forms of discrimination against all women,” explains Glorene.

“Tenaganita intends to expand its work to uphold the rights of migrants who seek redress, to collaborate with migrants to develop and equip communities with the skills and information necessary to access justice, and collectively advocate for changes in the system. There is a need to develop community paralegals and peer leaders to strengthen information outflow, to monitor and document evidence of violations in order to provide effective interventions,” she continues. “The role of the paralegals becomes more relevant as it is becoming more difficult for civil society to gain access to workers in hostels and workplaces. Tenaganita intends to develop peer leaders cum community paralegals among the Burmese, Indonesia, Philippines, Cambodian, Nepali, Bangladeshi and Vietnamese workers who will receive training and information packs on labour rights as well as their rights if they are arrested or detained.”

“Tenaganita has also had a long history in developing and participating in human rights and migrant rights networks nationally, regionally and internationally. This places us in a position to effectively share information from our work with grassroots communities and raise it at various levels to advocate for policy change,” says Glorene.

“We would also like to engage with networks to expand the support migrants receive when attempting to access justice. There has been a demand in Malaysia by NGOs for training on case management and understanding migrant and labour rights issues. A key factor in our success will be the empowerment of migrants to organise themselves and assert their rights more and more in a collective manner and in partnership with local workers,” she continues.

“Tenaganita is in a position to develop migrant associations within these communities and facilitate engagement with their embassies and with other civil society organisations. It is indeed time for migrant workers to speak for themselves, gain access to the media and represent themselves in the labor movement.”

The way forward for Tenaganita in the coming years: –

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