Who is Yetnebersh Nigussie?

A portrait of our colleague, the Right Livelihood Laureate
Photo: Right Livelihood Laureate Yetnebersh Nigussie. Credit: Light for the World

“As a person with a disability and especially as a woman with a disability, I really feel that the world has lost quite significantly from the possible contribution that persons with disabilities would have made had they been provided equality and equal opportunity earlier.” – Yetnebersh Nigussie

Yetnebersh’s objective in life is to demonstrate to society the strength and capabilities of persons with disabilities. She works to improve the lives of persons with disabilities in Ethiopia and globally by working for systemic change, an inclusive society and equal rights for all. 

Yetnebersh Nigussie is a 35-year-old Ethiopian lawyer and outstanding advocate for the rights enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). She is married and has two daughters, Ahati and Zema, who she describes as a joy and inspiration in her life.

Becoming blind at age five, she was raised in rural Ethiopia and only escaped an early marriage because she was considered as unfit for marriage by the community. Overcoming social and institutional barriers, she graduated from Addis Ababa University securing her first degree in Laws and later earning her Master’s in Social Work. She is also a student of Executive Master’s in Managing Peace and Security in Africa in Addis Ababa University. Through her personal experiences, work and education Yetnebersh became the inspiring, authentic role model she is today. 

Striving for an inclusive society

During her time in University Yetnebersh founded the Female Students Association and chaired the women’s wing of the Ethiopian Association of the Blind. She co-founded and shaped the Ethiopian Centre for Disability and Development (ECDD) which today is a driving force for implementing the UN-Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Ethiopia. Under Yetnebersh Nigussie’s leadership the association has grown in size and scope. Today ECDD has more than 50 members as well as 43 full time employees. More than half of the staff members are persons with disabilities. ECDD became the driving force for inclusion in Ethiopia and, among other milestones, managed to change Ethiopia’s building code, which ensures that all new buildings are accessible to persons with disabilities. The programmes implemented by ECDD build on its overall strategy to make mainstream services such as education, health or livelihood inclusive to persons with disabilities. 

Moreover, Yetnebersh played a crucial role in Ethiopia’s adoption of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which was finally ratified in 2009 and provides a strong legal basis for inclusion in the country. In 2013 Yetnebersh Nigussie led the initiative which resulted in the amendment of the ‘directive guidelines for civil society programmes’ in the country, which had long been considered as a bottleneck for reaching the most disadvantaged social groups and in particular persons with disabilities. 

Her engagement for society, however, does not stop at the level of policy. She has also started a social business by opening an inclusive school named ‘Yetnebersh Academy’ for underprivileged children in Addis Ababa. The school offers an inclusive, child-friendly and accessible environment to 190 children.

In January 2016 Yetnebersh joined the international disability and development organization Light for the World as their Senior Inclusion Adviser, where she had initially served as a member of the organization’s Board of Ambassadors. Together with her colleagues at Light for the World Yetnebersh strives for inclusion in the fight against poverty and puts her focus on empowering persons with disabilities to participate equally in society. She is actively involved in connecting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to the reality on the ground, by working tirelessly to hold actors accountable to the Agenda’s main principle of ‘leaving no one behind’.    

Yetnebersh has had a huge impact on Light for the World’s work, fighting for our shared mission of an inclusive society: eye health for all, education for all, and equal rights for all. Yetnebersh believes passionately in the right of every child – disability or no disability – to receive an inclusive education. Read more on why inclusive education matters here.

Further advocacy work 

Yetnebersh has also served in different capacities for the former Secretariat of African Disabled Persons with Disabilities which is currently known as African Disability Alliance and the Women’s Committee of the African Union of the Blind. She has made a number of significant contributions to the national disability movement including her project management committee participation in the Federation of Ethiopian National Associations of Persons with Disabilities (FENAPD) and her service as a chair of the Women’s Wing of the Ethiopian National Association of the Blind (ENAB) for nearly a decade. The Ethiopian National Disability Action Network (ENDAN) is another organization that is chaired by. Yetnebersh. ENDAN is the largest consortium of organizations working on disability in the country. Yetnebersh’s national participation is not limited to the disability movement but also reaches the overall CSO movement in the country. In this regard, Yetnebersh serves as a co-chair of the Ethiopian Federal Charities and Societies forum, which is the only independent representative body for CSOs in Ethiopia. 

Awards and achievements

Among her outstanding awards for the work she performed are: the AMANITARE award which she received for her intervention in promoting the sexual and reproductive health of women and girls, received in South Africa in 2003. She also received the TIAW World of Difference award in Washington DC, USA in 2011. Yetnebersh is also the regional winner of the Most Influential Women In Business And Government in Africa Award 2015-16 in the category of welfare, which she received from a prominent organization known as: CEO communications based in Pretoria, South Africa.  

Personal motivation and life

Through her tireless efforts she has changed perceptions of countless individuals on disability with the compelling message: “Focus on the person, not the disability. We have one disability, but 99 abilities to build on!” Today, Yetnebersh’s ambition is to fight against the exclusion of 15% of the world’s population who have a disability. She wants to create inclusive conditions for future generations in developing countries and beyond by connecting national realities with international frameworks.