Yetnebersh Nigussie didn’t realise she was different until she was 12. Only when she started at a mainstream school and found that no one wanted to be her friend did she start to understand that being a blind girl in rural Ethiopia might bring with it a few challenges.
Being disabled and female in the developing world are no small barriers. But Nigussie, now a human rights lawyer with two daughters of her own, has been named as one of the winners of an award described as “the alternative Nobel prize” for what the Sweden-based Right Livelihood award foundation described as “her inspiring work, promoting the rights and inclusion of people with disabilities”.
Nigussie, 35, who is visiting the UK, says she is delighted. “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.”
Nigussie co-founded the Ethiopian Centre for Disability and Development, a driving force for inclusion, and is now an adviser for Light for the World, an international organisation working to reduce preventable blindness and to get more children with disabilities into school. She lost her sight after contracting meningitis as a baby but said she was lucky to be educated at a special primary school for blind people run by nuns.
“We didn’t know that we would face isolation and segregation, as we were all blind. It was mixed, boys and girls, but all the women were leaders so for me, women were leaders. I didn’t understand until much later that women were considered to be of lower rank in society,” she says.
The turning point for her came at the age of 12, when she joined a mainstream school for the first time. “I had no friends for six months. Everyone played in the playground and no one noticed me. I was different. But I scored the best grades in school, and then everyone wanted to be my friend so I could help them. I became popular and I thought: ‘If I can excel, if I can bring about my own change, I can help others.’”
She became an equality champion and advocate of inclusive, quality education in a country where, she says, 60% of women with disabled children are single mothers – as the stigma drives fathers to leave.
“Even marriage and having children is difficult for women with disabilities in Ethiopia,” Nigussie says. “Most are not married, because there’s a stereotype that women should be able-bodied to get married.
“I know I’ve received the best-quality education but it was very expensive. I’m an advocate for quality inclusive education. Mothers don’t want their daughters who are blind or deaf to go to school because they are afraid of violence. We see so many girls in Africa being kept home because of the fear of rape.
“Women need to see role models to become leaders. Women cannot be what they cannot see.”
The other two laureates of the 2017 Right Livelihood award, announced in Sweden on Tuesday, are Colin Gonsalves, a human rights lawyer in India, and Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist in Azerbaijan. The three share a cash prize of more than £250,000 (3m Swedish kronor).
Rob Bilott, a US environmental lawyer, was also recognised for exposing a scandal involving drinking water pollution by the chemical company DuPont and winning justice for victims.
Ole von Uexküll, executive director of the Right Livelihood award, praised the courage of all three winners. “At a time of alarming setbacks for democracy, their successes show us the way forward towards a just, peaceful and sustainable world for all,” he said.