The 35-year-old human rights lawyer Yetnebersh Nigussie was on Tuesday awarded 3 million Swedish crowns ($374,000) as joint winner of the 2017 Right Livelihood Award, also known as Sweden’s alternative Nobel Prize.
She was honoured for her inspiring work promoting the rights and inclusion of people with disabilities.
I started my fight, not by telling people, but showing people that I’m able to contribute. I have one disability but I have 99 abilities.
“I really want to see a world where nobody is discriminated because of his or her disability or any other status,” she told the Thompson Reuters Foundation. “I started my fight, not by telling people, but showing people that I’m able to contribute. I have one disability but I have 99 abilities,” she added.
The Ethiopian lawyer went blind at the age of five and was considered unfit in the community. Her parents enrolled her at the Catholic boarding school for girls with disabilities in the capital Addis Ababa, where her life changed for the better, she told DW.
“Many people in Ethiopia think that someone’s disability is due to a curse because of a fault that their family has committed. I say that my blindness was an opportunity, because not many people in my village had the chance to get an education. Because I was blind, I was not considered suitable for an early marriage, which is a common practice in our village. All of my friends got married when they were 10, 11 or 12. I was the only exception. Education liberated me, and allowed me to become who I am today.”
Yetnebersh is among the first three blind women who went to law school and she helped establish the Center for Students with Disabilities at the Addis Ababa University and the Ethiopian Center for Disability and Development (ECDD).
“It’s important to recognize that there has been significant progress both internationally and regionally on the rights of persons with disabilities. Africa as a continent has now developed its own protocol on the rights of persons with disabilities, which is nearly ready for adoption and implementation by the African Union heads of state. And I’m proud to say that I was part of the development of this protocol,” she said to DW
On what she thinks needs to be done to improve the situation of women with disabilities across Africa the laureate said to DW, “Women with disabilities overcome a number of challenges in their lives. Their experience in overcoming challenges is not a 1500-meter or 10,000-meter run. It’s a lifetime run. So I think it’s critical for people to try and shift their attitudes: not to focus on the needs, but on the assets and the opportunities that those women can bring.”
She has won several awards and she says the Right Livelihood Award is her biggest so far. “With this award comes international recognition,” she says. “But with recognition comes responsibility. You cannot sleep once you are recognised. Women with disabilities in Ethiopia face multiple layers of discrimination. My role is to link the two communities, of disabled and able-bodied women, that have faced historical discrimination,” she told the Guardian on her visit to the UK.
Nigussie won the joint prize with Colin Gonsalves, an Indian human rights lawyer, and female journalist Khadija Ismayilova for revealing government corruption in Azerbaijan.