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Meet Yetnebersh Nigussie: A Blind Ethiopian Lawyer Fighting for Global Disability Rights

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December 3 is International Day of Persons with Disabilities. “Unfortunately, disability-based discrimination is still a global phenomenon,” says Yetnebersh Nigussie, a lawyer and disability rights activist from Ethiopia who in 2017 received the Right Livelihood Award, also known as the “Alternative Nobel Prize.” Nigussie is the director for advocacy and rights at Light for the World and the former chair of the Ethiopian National Association of the Blind women’s wing. She has been blind since the age of 5. Yetnebersh Nigussie speaks with us in Stockholm. She is one of many former Right Livelihood Award recipients from across the globe who have gathered to celebrate this year’s recipients: Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, Sahrawi human rights activist Aminatou Haidar, Chinese women’s rights lawyer Guo Jianmei and indigenous leader Davi Kopenawa and the Yanomami Hutukara Association, who protect the Amazon’s biodiversity and indigenous peoples.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from Stockholm, Sweden, before we make it to Madrid on Friday, where we’ll be broadcasting for the next six days. Next week, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed will be awarded the 100th Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo for his role in brokering a historic peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea. While in office, he has lifted the state of emergency in Ethiopia, released thousands of political dissidents from prison and appointed women to a record half of the Cabinet positions.

The Nobel Peace Prize is the one Nobel not awarded here in Stockholm, where Democracy Now! is for this week for the 40th anniversary of the Right Livelihood Award, also known as the “Alternative Nobel Prize.” This year’s Right Livelihood Award winners are Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who you just heard as she made landfall in Lisbon, Portugal; also the Sahrawi human rights activist Aminatou Haidar — you’ll be hearing her later in the week; Chinese women’s rights lawyer Guo Jianmei — she won’t be joining the Right Livelihood ceremony; and indigenous leader Davi Kopenawa and the Yanomami Hutukara Association, which protect the Amazon’s biodiversity and indigenous people.

Former award recipients from around the world have gathered here to honor these incredible activists, including Yetnebersh Nigussie, a lawyer and disability rights activist from Ethiopia, director for advocacy and rights at Light for the World and is the former chair of the Ethiopian National Association of the Blind women’s wing. She has been blind since the age of 5. In 2017, she was awarded the Right Livelihood Award. She’s joining us here at our studios in Stockholm as we mark this International Day of Persons with Disabilities.

Yeti, thanks so much for joining us here. It’s an honor to have you with us. Talk about your activism. What got you started?

YETNEBERSH NIGUSSIE: Thank you, Amy. And it’s so amazing to be live on Democracy Now!

Well, as you mentioned, I got blind when I was 5. Then I was born and raised in rural Ethiopia, where the fate of a girl child is to get married early. So I was no more considered valuable in that community, because I was not fit for marriage. But my mom and my grandma made sure that I got education. But I got a special education in a special school for the blind. So, that was very good. And we were only 60 girls and 60 boys, only 120.

As I joined the government school after grade six because the special school could not afford taking us in, I realized that I was different. So, we were 76 in a classroom, but I was the only blind girl, and I was the only blind student. So it was different for the students. They were not happy to sit with me, so I had no friends, until I got into the first semester. So I realized that I was special. And I realized that I had to work more, I had to excel more, to be considered normal.

So, that’s the passion in this time when I started my activism, that I am just different, like you, and I want just the same rights as you want, and I want equality. So, that’s where my activism starts and is still going on. Unfortunately, disability-based discrimination is a global phenomena. It happens in the U.S. It happens in Asia. And I’m just coming in from Turkey, where I was speaking in an event again on inclusion of persons with disabilities. So, it’s a global phenomenon. It’s growing. The rights of persons with disabilities is being violated, and every day their quality of life is significantly deteriorating. So it’s about becoming a voice.

AMY GOODMAN: You not only went to the schools of Ethiopia as an undergraduate, but you became a lawyer.

YETNEBERSH NIGUSSIE: Yes, I became a lawyer, because I decided, as I agree, one, that I am different, I decided that it’s my human rights to be included, and people should know more about their rights and their duties. So that’s where I decided to study law. And I am one of the first three blind female lawyers in the country who decided to study law.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what rights are enshrined in the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities?

YETNEBERSH NIGUSSIE: You know, it’s very interesting, because the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has only come to entry into force in 2010. It was adopted in 2006. So, many people think that it contains new rights. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, because all the rights in the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities did exist before. The problem is, nobody took action on them.

So, it’s the same rights which were enshrined in the Child Rights Convention, in the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. So it’s all the same rights. No new rights are in the convention. So, it’s about like all the rights that we persons with disabilities want are the same like others want, like we want our rights to education the same like other children. We want a right to health, a right to access to justice, a right to be kept free from violence, and, you know, everything.

So, one historical development or evolution that this convention has brought through is that it combines the human rights and the humanitarian law together because of its Article 11. So it’s just human right as any other human being, but it gives a special emphasis, and it also guides us to how those rights can be a reality for persons with disabilities.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about being a woman with disabilities and what that means?

YETNEBERSH NIGUSSIE: Yeah, it’s interesting, because women are also among the minorities where they didn’t get where they want to be because of social attitude. So, when you have a disability and when you are a woman, then the stereotype that you fight with becomes double. So, unfortunately, there are more women with disabilities internationally, according to the world disability report, but you don’t see them quite often. Like, you don’t see them in leadership in the disability movement. You don’t see them in the women’s movement. So they look to be missing from both very crucial and vibrant civil rights movements. So, it’s clear that there are more women with disabilities, but they are not yet empowered. They are not visible enough. And I would hope, especially next year with the Beijing+25 in 2020, I would hope that there will be a breakthrough to really recognize and make this section of the community more visible.

AMY GOODMAN: Here we are in Stockholm. In Oslo next week, your prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, will be receiving the 100th Nobel Peace Prize next week. Talk about the significance of him receiving this award. And then I want to ask you about an appointment he recently made of you to chair the Reconciliation Commission.

YETNEBERSH NIGUSSIE: Yeah. It’s very interesting that our prime minister is winning. And I think he’s the first Ethiopian. And the fact that he’s number 100 is also something significant. However, as the Nobel Peace Prize committee also announced, that he is undertaking a work in progress, yeah, because, normally, this kind of prizes do not come simply as an achievement recognition; they also come as a recognition of your efforts. So, yes, he has contributed to the peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and, of course, he has done a number of positive actions towards realizing peaceful Horn of Africa as a region, and so on and so forth. But it’s also clear that he is still confronted with a number of challenges when it comes into peace in the country and also sustaining development and a fair and democratic society in the country. But I believe that this is a work in progress, and I am so happy that he is receiving this.

And, yeah, I hope it also signals the message that this award, this prize, is not simply for Ethiopia, but this — I would think that this is a prize for Africa, in particular for the region Horn of Africa. And in particular, we have to say that this is a prize which goes both for the Ethiopians as well as for the Eritreans, for peace takes two, whereas conflict, you can be one. One is enough for conflict, but for peace, at least, it takes two. So it’s an award in recognition for both Ethiopia and Eritrea as a country, and of course the leaders, Dr. Abiy as well as President Isaias as the president of Eritrea.

AMY GOODMAN: Can I ask you about the criticism of Dr. Abiy weeks after the announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize, that he would be receiving it? He came under harsh criticism over his silence in the face of protests that police said had resulted in the deaths of 67 people. Explain what happened.

YETNEBERSH NIGUSSIE: Yeah. It was unfortunate that even though a number of reforms have been done, still we’re facing a number of challenges in Ethiopia. And, of course, internally, it looks like that we have newly emerging conflicts among people. So, that has happened, and as you said, rightly, that the government was being questioned for the silence. It’s true that we — I mean, there are things that he has achieved, but that doesn’t mean that he has finished his homework, or that doesn’t mean that Ethiopia has been fully back into peace. So, that is, again, a message that we need to do things differently if we really want to achieve peace in the country.

AMY GOODMAN: And what does it mean that you’re going to be head of the Reconciliation Commission?

YETNEBERSH NIGUSSIE: The Reconciliation Commission is part of a transitional justice, as you know, and it was formed last February, beginning of February. So the government has appointed around 41 commissioners, which I am one of the co-chairs to do. So, with this reconciliation concept, we are supposed to serve four main purposes. First is to investigate what has happened in the past. Second is to recommend and also recognize victims who have suffered because of the injustice which has happened in the past. Third is, of course, making sure that a common truth is created. And fifth is, of course, making — fourth is, of course, making sure that those kind of conflicts do not recur again. So, the commission is very infant and very new, and the reconciliation process itself in Ethiopia is for the first time. So we are undertaking a number of preparatory actions to make sure that we open up for receiving complaints from the citizens.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Yetnebersh Academy, what is it?

YETNEBERSH NIGUSSIE: It’s my own private school initiative. As I told you, I went to a special school because children with disabilities were not allowed then to go to regular schools. However, now, with the education policy becoming open for children with disabilities to join regular schools, private schools were resisting to take in children with disabilities because they associate disability with poverty. So I decided that I’d become an entrepreneur, and I opened the first private school which can welcome children with disabilities, because of the understanding that I believe that I’m just different like anybody.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, you talk about the importance of children with and without disabilities, or with different abilities — we’ll put it that way — continually interacting.

YETNEBERSH NIGUSSIE: Yes. I believe that’s the most natural way of teaching inclusion, because children are just innocent. They’re just white papers. We are the ones who teach them who is higher, who is lower, who is different and who is more powerful and who is less powerful. So if children play, grow and learn together, we don’t have to do all the artificial work of inclusion, convention and so on and so forth. So I believe that’s a natural garden to teach inclusion.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you so much for being with us. I look forward to our public conversation tomorrow here in Stockholm that will take place just before the major Right Livelihood Award event. And at that event, I will be speaking to Edward Snowden — not live in person; yes, live, but he is in political exile in Moscow. And he also was a previous Right Livelihood laureate.

Yetnebersh Nigussie, I want to thank you so much for being with us, lawyer, disability rights activist from Ethiopia, director of the advocacy and rights at Light for the World. In 2017, Yeti was awarded the Right Livelihood Award.

When we come back, as the U.N. climate summit begins in Madrid, we look at the place it was originally supposed to be, even before Chile: Brazil, where there’s growing violence against indigenous forest protectors under the far-right President Jair Bolsonaro. Stay with us.

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