Listen to the Developing World

Planned Parenthood official Perdita Huston urges sensitivity to people and `nature literacy'. INTERVIEW: WOMEN'S ISSUES ADVOCATE

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

ASK Perdita Huston about population issues in the developing nations, and you'll get a lot more than numbers. To be sure, she'll tell you that more than one-third of the 140 million women who became pregnant in the last 12 months did not want another child. She's aware that one in every 21 African women dies in childbirth - compared with one in every 6,366 in North America. She knows that 20 percent of third-world infant deaths could be prevented if all births were spaced by an interval of at least two years.

And, as director of public affairs at the International Planned Parenthood Federation in London, she's clear on the fact that ``family planning saves lives - it saves children's lives, and it saves women's lives.''

But in an hour-long interview here at the Aspen Institute's Wye Center recently, Ms. Huston put her emphasis not on data, but on the moral and social implications of the gap between the developed and the developing world. In particular, she points to three qualities most needed to close the gap: a willingness to listen, a rethinking of male-female relationships, and what she calls ``nature literacy.'' Listening

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``I would like to make a plea that the silent partners be taken more into consideration in the planning and in the reporting [of third-world issues],'' she says.

These ``silent partners,'' she explains, are ``people with traditional knowledge - the voiceless people who have been farmers and pastors for 1,000 years.

``One of the saddest things we find in the conservation community is the loss of traditional knowledge - because the [Western] scientific community does not value traditional knowledge.''

Listening to ``silent partners'' is a quality she herself practices. At a small conference here organized by the New York-based Global Forum of Spiritual and Parliamentary Leaders on Human Survival, for instance, she told of visiting an impoverished orphanage in North Yemen, where 40 boys, aged 7 through 14, lived in a walled yard near the Red Sea. Visited only once a day by a cook and twice a week by a man who taught them carpentry, the boys were otherwise guarded only by an old man at the gate. ``They had no access to warmth, to human affection, or to love,'' she recalls. ``They were castaways.''

So when an American nurse working for the Peace Corps began visiting them on her days off, she found that ``every little boy lined up to say he had a complaint - because it was a way of getting attention.'' Traveling with the nurse one day, Huston recalls that ``one little fellow put his hand in mine - we spoke no language together - and he pulled at me and took me around the building to show me his prize possession. And there in the sand in the scorching sun of Yemen was a little plant, about [six inches] high, which he had nurtured with great pride, bringing it water every day.

``You didn't need any language to know how important that plant was to him,'' she says.

``I think we have to liberate the little boy in us and look at our relationship to nature and all living things,'' she told the group.

Yet that very relationship to nature - and the time to be quiet enough to listen - is being threatened by population growth-rates and by international development projects that separate people from the land, she says.

To be sure, the need for economic development is pressing. She cites a recent study by the government of Kenya showing that Kenyan women spend an estimated 9 million hours per day carrying water to their homes.

But she's wary of even the most well-meaning Western efforts to resolve such problems. She recalls a trip she took three years ago, under the auspices of the United Nations Development Program, to study rural water projects in the African nations of Tanzania, Togo, and Burkina Faso. ``I talked mostly to women, who are the water carriers,'' she says, ``and what I heard was astounding - because, in all three countries, the women were saying something very different from what the planners were saying.''

The women told her that, while water systems were welcome, the real problem was finding firewood.

``If we start out looking for fuel, we never know when we're coming home,'' they said.

Why are villagers not often consulted in such planning? Huston attributes it to ``the arrogance with which the literate speak about the illiterate.''

``We've cut off a whole part of society because we say they're illiterate - they have no interest, they have nothing to offer, they have no experience,'' she says. But interviews with illiterate women in six developing nations persuaded her otherwise.

``They were the wisest things I'd ever talked to,'' she recalls, ``and made the most incredibly sophisticated arguments about all sorts of things. It had nothing to do with their [formal] education.''

These women, she says, are central to global population-control efforts, which generally depend far more on women's than men's actions. ``It does not follow that women don't know enough to plan their families because they are not literate,'' she says. Male-Female Relationships

A second question that needs to be resolved in addressing third-world issues, says Huston, is ``how you get the genders together.

``For most of the women of the developing world, their entire security system depends on them pleasing the man,'' she says. ``And thus they will do anything, including having another child.'' The result, she says, is a projected doubling of global population - to at least 10 billion - in the 21st century. More than 90 percent of that growth will be in developing nations.

The problem arises, she feels, from a ``fragmentation'' that comes from a lack of respect for womanhood. ``That fragmentation has been the separation of the maleness and the femaleness.'' Needed, she says, are ways to ``empower men to let the feminine in them come forth.

``It's not going to work until we get [maleness and femaleness] back together, and recognize that in each of us there are these gifts,'' she says. How important is this question of the relationship between the genders? ``Had it been taken seriously,'' she says, ``we might not have gone to 10 billion.'' Nature Literacy

Closely related to the male-female issue, she says, is her third concern, which she describes as ``nature literacy.''

``If you're nature-literate,'' she says, ``you respect the nurturing, the earth, the fertility.'' And that, she feels, leads naturally to a greater respect for womanhood. ``I think that's all part of the whole dependency and interdependency of beings and species and genders,'' she adds.

``If we educate that out of us, we're stripped of what is probably the most important and most survival-oriented quality. It's probably denying one of the most positive, energizing parts of us.''

That quality, she feels, engenders respect both for human equality and for a natural environment that is sustainable rather than imbalanced.

``If you don't care for that which sustains you, how can you care for that which is equal to you?'' she asks. ``If you respect nature, if you are nature-literate, sustainability flows. All the imbalances happen when you lose that very first respect and caring.''

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