Series on Women Changing the World: Mercy Kiyapyap, Kenya

The West Pokot District is one of the driest and poorest areas of Kenya, where 90 percent of the population is illiterate. As a result of the traditional use of land for grazing and collection of firewood, land degradation is severe in this area. Even further, the increasing occurrence of droughts causes food shortages that lead to conflicts between neighboring tribes. It is in this insecure district that a willingness to adopt new ideas is critical to future development and an increased standard of living.

Recognizing the insecurities of the district and the need for an innovative sustainable improvement, the Cabesi Project was set up in the West Pokot District. A self-help initiative with a strong emphasis on empowering women, the Cabesi Project set out to turn the disadvantages of West Pokot into advantages. Creatively focusing on enterprises that integrate well into the unforgiving vegetation of West Pokot, the project promotes the production and marketing of local honey and wild silk. Joining the project from its beginning, Mercy Kiyapyap has been a resolute leader in carrying out innovative ideas to empower women and bring peace to her community. It is for her creativity and dedication to the Cabesi project that we choose to honor Mercy in our Series on Women Changing the World.

Born into poverty in the Pokot area of Kenya, Mercy faced many hardships growing up. After losing her father at the age of six and experiencing Female Genital Mutilation at the age of 11, Mercy decided to change her life for the better. Despite living in an area with a large illiterate population, she made the decision to fight for her education. With a strong will and impressive dedication, Mercy raised vegetables, goats and hens in order to pay for her schooling. After finishing her education, she bravely decided to return to her home and effect change in her community, while also raising awareness for women's rights.

In joining the Cabesi Project, Mercy was able to do just this. Since joining the project in its infancy, she has greatly contributed to its phenomenal growth and the economic empowerment of women, a group which is often restricted from contributing to development activities and decision making.

Today, the Cabesi Project covers 9000 km2 with over 3,000 people benefiting from this self-help project. Through her ardent work as the assistant project director, Mercy has trained as a social worker and eco-trainer and is currently responsible for training over a thousand people, mostly women, in bee-keeping and silk production.

Playing an important role in the economy and culture of the Pokot people, honey was originally an occupation only open to men. Yet through the work of leaders such as Mercy, the Cabesi Project promotes modern honey production that supports gender equality. Instead of using traditional bee boxes that need to be placed high in hollowed out trees, the modern boxes can be used on the ground, allowing women to become bee-keepers.

In addition to her work with honey and silk production, Mercy also encourages the rearing and use of camels, instead of less drought-tolerant cattle. Not only do camels endure dry periods significantly better than cattle, but their hooves are also less damaging to the ground.

In 2007, the Women's World Summit Foundation awarded Mercy the Prize for Women's Creativity in Rural Life, recognizing her innovative methods and the dedication that she has shown for improving the rights of women. Using Cabesi as her starting point, Mercy continues to contribute to the advances of West Pokot women by establishing women's cooperatives and promoting their rights and education. She also works to improve the community through peace-building initiatives between the Pokot, Marakwel, Samburu and Turkana. In an effort to bring harmony to Northern Kenya, Mercy became the co-initiator of the Cabesi Beauty Pageant, a festival that brings these often rivaling tribes together in a friendly celebration of their women and differing cultures.

Since joining the Cabesi Project, Mercy has broken with the traditional women's role for her community. Through her hard work and determination, she has earned the respect of her community and is now looked upon as a leader by both men and women. We invite you to explore our website to learn more about the innovative work of women like Mercy, whose exceptional courage and creativity help to improve the rights of women and work to eradication poverty in their community.

Writer Elizabeth Miller contributed to this WWSF report.