As I readied myself to come to Nepal, I started to follow the news more closely. I knew I was coming to a country that was struggling out of a decade-long conflict, and had my doubts about the democratic process as well as respect for the rights of women and children.
But a week-long trip in mid-western Dang changed those impressions. The people I met in the villages, mainly women and children, stoked my optimism about Nepal.
I met many women in Dang, some affiliated with women's cooperatives, female community health volunteers undergoing training, teachers, and women working relentlessly to mediate cases of domestic violence.
In Hapur VDC, members of the Women's Federation told us how fewer babies are falling ill to treatable diseases, and no babies had died in recent years from diarrhoea or pneumonia. Because of watch groups for safe motherhood, no mother had died during childbirth.
In Dhikpur village the women showed us charts illustrating how immunisation rates, school enrolment, toilet construction, birth registration, family planning and consumption of iodised salt have all gone up. Death rates and unattended births have dipped. I marvelled that all of this was achieved despite the armed conflict. The women told me this was possible because they were doing it themselves. Their grassroots movement was not singed by the wildfire of the conflict.
Witnessing this first hand helped reaffirm my belief that the roots of democracy lie in a decentralised system where the decision makers are those whose lives are affected by development programs. A bottom-up planning system can trickle up from the community to the district level.
When I heard about the issues Nepali women were trying to overcome Ė poverty, illness, malnutrition, illiteracy Ė I was reminded of Sweden about a century ago. Like here, it was a movement by the non-governmental sector that first pushed for social reforms.
The children I met during my trip also filled me with hope. In Hapur, they told me how difficult it was to convince their elders to construct toilets and not defecate in the open. These children wanted us to provide adult education classes for their parents! In a tiny classroom in Tulsipur, decorated with children's artwork, boys and girls shared their dreams with us. Most had to work and were only allowed to be children for two hours a day at school. Guided by a caring teacher, these children explored a new world through books. They wanted to become doctors and teachers, and despite their hard lives, they were full of hope. Their optimism was infectious!
In Nepalganj, we met young peer educators who reached out to those at risk of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. I was amazed at the immense courage these youngsters demonstrated. When they emphasised the importance of sex education, I was taken back six decades, when as a young teenager I had advocated for the same in our school, following the expulsion of a pregnant schoolmate.
I didn't get the chance to tour a lot of Nepal, but whatever I saw convinced me that the women and children of Nepal, often with the support of the men, are well on their way to becoming very capable future leaders. Once Nepal has a democratic constitution and local governance flourishes again, this can become a reality.
Birgitta Dahl was MP in Sweden for 34 years, Speaker of the House for 8 years and Minister of Environment and Energy for 9 years. She is now President of UNICEF Sweden.