Listen to the Developing World
Planned Parenthood official Perdita Huston urges sensitivity to people and `nature literacy'. INTERVIEW: WOMEN'S ISSUES ADVOCATE
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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
``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.