This January, Risnawati “Risna” Utami became the first person from her native Indonesia to sit on the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities. As one of the committee’s 18 members, Utami, a lawyer and activist, is arguably one of the most powerful women in the world when it comes to international law and disability rights. Her rise is a testament to more than 20 years of passionate work on behalf of women and people with disabilities and her refusal to give in to the low expectations of the society where she grew up.
Born and raised in Indonesia, Utami was all but disregarded as a child with disability in her community after contracting polio at the age of 4. Utami describes the Indonesian culture she grew up in as “not accepting of women with disabilities whatsoever.” As the only daughter in her family, Utami saw those dynamics play out in her own household. “My father was initially ashamed and embarrassed,” she says. “My mother convinced him that I’d be OK someday, which was true.” She credits her mom with providing a strong female role model for her to follow. “My mum is a strong figure for me — in the way she raised me, encouraging me to be the woman I am now.”
Even with her family’s emotional backing, financial and social obstacles made things difficult. Utami’s parents were unable to afford a wheelchair for many years during her childhood, forcing her to use a brace. “I’m lucky because my family has supported me, but very few women have that opportunity,” she says.
That support helped Utami thrive academically. She graduated from Sebelas Maret University, an Indonesian university, with a degree in law in 1997, but her credentials only did so much to counter discrimination. “‘It was very difficult to find a job,” she says. “People focused on my wheelchair and disability, and the stigma in Indonesia was difficult to overcome.” After two years searching for work, Utami started volunteering for a local nongovernmental organization that focused on disability. “It fit perfectly with my law degree, and it was a great opportunity for me to learn about the disability rights movement and civil rights movement,” she says. “I’d never met or interacted with other people with disabilities before — you don’t see other people with disability in Indonesia. I thought, wow, I can go deep and learn more about disability and make a difference here.”
Utami takes obvious pride in representing her country, and more specifically its women with disabilities, on a global scale. She thinks it is important that women with disabilities are regarded as sexual beings and are granted adequate sexual and reproductive rights and responsibilities to reflect this. She is equally adamant about the importance of people in the disabled community pushing for change elsewhere, sharing their work and findings and encouraging progress on a global level.
Her passion has made her an outspoken leader in the push for the Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities on both a local and a global level. The United Nations adopted the Convention in 2006 to empower people with disabilities and provide human rights guidelines and goals.
Utami has led the Indonesian Consortium for Disability Rights, which has 45 organization members representing eight provinces, to push for CRPD implementation at the local and national level. On the international level, her work has helped get more than 160 countries to sign and ratify the treaty (the U.S. has signed, but not ratified). “Risna is a formidable leader, stellar advocate, and kind and compassionate human being,” says Elizabeth Lockwood, a representative at the U.N. “It is a joy to work with Risna, not only because of her depth of knowledge, expertise, and experience but more so because of her welcoming and warm nature.”
Lockwood, who has worked with Utami at the U.N. since 2014 to advocate for people with disabilities, says it’s obvious why she is so successful. “Risna has always been aware of the importance of her determination and positivity, and what a vital role both have played in her success to date,” says Lockwood. “Her kindness and willingness to put the needs of others before her own is also immediately present in the way she speaks and writes.”
Image credit: Photo by Author