Yetnebersh Nigussie

Author: Emma Pontoriero

“I turned blind and that became my window to escape early marriage. Lucky me, no early husband, I was taken to the capital, tested and they told me “you can never be sighted, but,” the doctor said, “she can be educated.” That turned my life into a miracle and brought me all the way here, from Addis.” - Yetnebersh Nigussie.

Blind from the age of 5, by a preventable meningitis infection, Yetnebersh Nigussie got an opportunity that most girls in rural Ethiopia would die for - an education. Her education allowed her to become a human rights lawyer, advocating and campaigning for rights and inclusion of people with disabilities, around 15% of the world’s population. Overcoming the social and institutional barriers placed in front of her because of her loss of sight and being a woman have shaped her goals and objectives in life and in the several organisations she has founded. She has always aimed to demonstrate to society the capabilities of people with disabilities, as they might have a disability but they have 99 abilities to build on; and to generally improve the lives of people with disabilities through systemic change, equal rights for all, and an inclusive and accepting society.

Yetnebersh Nigussie was born in the Amhara region of Northern Ethiopia and raised by her parents, who met due to an arranged marriage. She went to school at the Shasheman Catholic School for the blind and later attended Addis Ababa University where she co-founded the university anti-AIDS movement and founded the Addis Ababa University Female Students’ Association. She received a degree in law and earned her first Masters in Social Work and second Masters in Peace and Security Studies. In 2005, at the age of 23, she co-founded the Ethiopian Centre for Disability and Development (ECDD), an organization promoting inclusion of people with disabilities in the law, and society at large. Currently, Yetnebersh leads the Disability Rights and Advocacy department, she’s an Advisor at “Light for the World”, an international organisation aiming for equal rights and chances for all, striving for an inclusive society for all people, women, people with disabilities etc. As well being a leader of organizations she had done her fair share of volunteer work, volunteering in more than 20 Ethiopian organisations, including the Ethiopian National Disability Action Network. She is now married and has two daughters, Ahati and Zema, although having children has not prevented her continuing to work for the underprivileged, people who have disabilities, women who are forced into marriages, children who do not have a right to education.

Due to her persistence, dedication, and her inspiring work, she has been the recipient of several awards, including “World of Difference Lifetime Achievement” award, won by her in 2011, “African Most Influential Women in Business and Politics” Award in South Africa, awarded to her in 2015 and the list goes on. Some of her more famous awards being the very prestigious “Right Livelihood Award”, an award commonly referred to “Alternative Nobel Prize”, awarded to her in 2017 “for her inspiring work promoting the rights and inclusion of people with disabilities allowing them to realise their full potential and changing mindsets in our societies." Recently, she was the recipient of The Spirit of Helen Keller Award, March of 2018. She was awarded for her compassion and dedication to promoting and advocating for an inclusive society and inclusive education and most of all rights of people struggling with a disability. Her amazing contribution to the lives of people with disabilities but also other minority groups, such as women, and children are finally being recognised. She has dedicated her life to helping achieve equal rights for all and a world where inclusion in the norm, as she stated, “If I could change one thing in the world, I would change people’s mindsets to think that inclusion, not exclusion, is the norm.”