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Most of the children streaming over the packed-dirt roads and dusty orange paths of Malawi’s Mchinji region have no shoes to wear, although a few scuff around in ragged flip-flops. Shoes are a coveted commodity here, especially when the summer sun burns into the ground. Children who have only one shoe will wear it.

Vanessa Chakhala, though, is luckier than most. A sturdy 22-month-old, her chubby feet are jammed into new blue jelly shoes even though her feet rarely touch the ground. The youngest in the family and the only girl, Vanessa gets heaps of special treatment. Her satiny peach-colored dress is torn but clean, and her hair is styled in short braids that match her mother’s. Mother Patricia, age 32, carries her daughter in her arms or on her back much of the time. When it’s time to nap, Vanessa snores away in Patricia’s lap.

The special treatment certainly hasn't made Vanessa soft, though, and her mother is delighted by her only daughter's sturdy build and stubborn personality. Patricia wants Vanessa to become a soldier so that she can be in charge of her own destiny. Unlike herself, Patricia said her daughter will have an education that extends beyond 8thgrade and a chance to shape her own future. Money for Vanessa’s education and the education of her three brothers will come from the meat goats Heifer provided. The family is also hoping that being able to add meat to their diet occasionally will make them stronger and better able to stave off malaria, diarrhea and malnourishment.

Snapping cute photos of Chionko Village’s little princess Vanessa was no problem when she was sleeping, but the shoot shut down as soon as she woke up. Vanessa does what she wants, and she does not want to be in pictures. Her mother and the other women in her village danced for her, made faces, sang songs. But Vanessa wasn’t going to cooperate and refused to smile or pose.

It’s unlikely that a little girl in Malawi would be so fawned over or her obstinacy so celebrated 20 years ago. But today a woman is president here, and even in rural areas many girls are getting sent to school. It’s real progress.

But women and girls in Malawi are still expected to handle the majority of water fetching, cooking, gardening and tending children. These never-ending obligations cut into time girls could spend studying, and often smother their opportunity to live lives different from their mothers and grandmothers.

Today is the United Nations International Day of the Girl Child, a time to recognize the challenges girls in many developing countries face and to find ways to help them reach their potential. Gender equity is one of Heifer’s Cornerstones for Just and Sustainable Development, and encouraging women and girls to learn, cooperate and use their gifts is part of every project.

To learn more about International Day of the Girl Child, go here.

Photos by Russell Powell


Austin Bailey

Austin Bailey is a writer and editor for Heifer's World Ark magazine.