Written by: Lin Taylor
At just five years old, Yetnebersh Nigussie’s world went dark.
After contracting a fever as a child, no amount of “holy water” or traditional medicine in rural Ethiopia was enough to stop Nigussie from losing her sight – and community acceptance.
As far as her village was concerned, the girl was “cursed” and no longer had value as a daughter to bring in a sizeable marriage dowry. Her father eventually left.
“It was not easy to accept for my family. Blind people are assumed to be unfit, invalid in the community. It is considered to be a result of a curse,” said Nigussie, who believes her blindness was preventable and likely due to meningitis.
“So everybody told my mum, ‘Oh my god, it would be better if she dies,’” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in London.
Instead, Nigussie was sent to a Catholic boarding school for girls with disabilities in the capital Addis Ababa.
There, her life changed.
“I was lucky to be educated. Education was a turning point that changed my blindness into an opportunity,” she said,
Now 35 – and a human rights lawyer – Nigussie is among the winners of the Right Livelihood Award, also known as Sweden’s alternative Nobel prize.
“I started my fight, not by telling people, but showing people that I‘m able to contribute. I have one disability but I have 99 abilities,” she said, adding that she was one of just three women studying law at Addis Ababa University in 2002.
Throughout her five-year degree, Nigussie said she would spend weeks transcribing audio recordings of her thick legal textbooks into Braille.
“Sometimes my fingers were so swollen because I had to write 300 to 400 pages of a book,” said Nigussie, a senior advisor at Light for the World, a charity that provides eye care services and promotes disability rights in developing nations.
About 1 billion people are thought to have some form of disability, according to the United Nations.
“I really want to see a world where nobody is discriminated because of his or her disability or any other status,” she said ahead of Tuesday’s award ceremony in the Swedish capital Stockholm.
Other laureates this year include Colin Gonsalves, an Indian human rights lawyer, and female journalist Khadija Ismayilova for revealing government corruption in Azerbaijan.
The three laureates will share a cash award of 3 million Swedish crowns ($374,000), said the Swedish prize-giving foundation.
U.S. lawyer Robert Bilott also received an honorary award for exposing contamination in local water supplies.
The Right Livelihood Award was established in 1980 to honor and support those “offering visionary and exemplary solutions to the root causes of global problems.”