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.
Acceptance Speech – Yetnebersh Nigussie
I am pleased and proud to accept this award from the esteemed Right Livelihood Award Foundation and to join past Laureates who I have long admired.
An enormous salute, especially, to Robert Bilott, Colin Gonsalves and Khadija Ismayilova – the last who, I am sorry, could not be with us today. You have all made incredible contributions towards realising a more just world.
Likewise, I would like to give my greatest respect and thanks to Bob Ransom – a wonderful advocate and champion of inclusion, who has always believed in me, and is in the audience today. Thank you also to Franz Joseph, Kalle Konkkolla, Melaku Tekle, my colleagues at Light for the World and all the brilliant disability advocates whose work encourages me every day. And last but not least, thank you to my beloved husband, Besrat, and father of our two lovely daughters Ahati and Zema. With you by my side, I feel I can do anything.
I would like to use this special opportunity to share a few words about an issue which is very close to my heart.
It begins with a personal story…
I was five years old when I went blind.
At this moment in time, in my local community’s eyes, I lost all value.
The destiny of a girl from our village, in rural Ethiopia, was to marry and bring in a dowry; and surely, no man would want to marry me now.
I tell you this story of mine this evening – not so you feel sorry for me!
But because this turn of events – surprisingly – granted me a huge opportunity in life.
After I went blind, my mother and grandmother were able to ensure I received an education at my young age, rather than a husband.
They sent me to special school in Shashemene, 250 km away from the capital, Addis Ababa, and from there I excelled.
Education really was the turning point in my life.
In class, I worked hard and I scored the top marks of my year. I made friends. I went on to university to become one of the first blind, female lawyers in Ethiopia. I now engage in international advocacy for the rights of people with disabilities.
But although my personal story is uplifting; I want you all to know how extremely unusual, or lucky, it is.
For most children with disabilities who live in poorer countries, and especially for most girls with disabilities, the chance of a quality education is very slim.
It is estimated that at least 32 million children with disabilities in developing countries are currently out of school.
Just think: that’s more than three times the entire population of Sweden.
The exclusion of these tens of millions of children from education is, no doubt, a human rights scandal.
It is also responsible for the loss of billions of dollars of potential income– as people with disabilities are shut out from contributing to the educational and business worlds, worlds which – I know — they are perfectly capable of excelling in.
Yet, we rarely ever hear about this scandal on the news, or from the lips of our government leaders.
My message, then, to you this evening is this: the neglect of children with disabilities must end now because every child deserves an equal chance at education.
If we want to reach the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, inclusive education must be introduced on a mass scale: so all children – girls and boys, both with and without disabilities, in rich countries and in poor countries – are enabled to learn together.
Together, we need to make a huge rallying cry to the powers-that-be – which include many great colleagues in this room – in order to fight this injustice and unleash the great potential I know exists.
First – if major international donors did one simple thing – by committing to making disability-inclusion a necessary condition for their funding and programmes – the impact would be incredible.
Likewise, just think of the impact we could have if philanthropists and influential individuals decided to give their voice to this cause, to campaign on behalf of children who don’t have a voice – but who certainly deserve one.
Finally, we need to call on governments in Africa and around the world to step up their spending on education for their own populations, earmarking a proportion to ensure schools are inclusive and accessible, and children with disabilities are not missing from the classrooms.
The need is urgent and the pay-off would be enormous.
I describe myself as lucky for having made it to school, but I hope future generations of girls and women with disabilities feel differently. It is their right to be at school, and it always has been. I hope you will consider joining me in their fight to access quality inclusive education, which is your fight too.