Mia Farrow’s recommendations

An interview with...

Mia Farrow on Changing the World for Good

About Mia Farrow

Mia Farrow, internationally acclaimed actress and humanitarian activist, is a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. She campaigns tirelessly for children’s rights around the world, with a special focus on children impacted by armed conflict. Ms Farrow has worked extensively to raise funds and awareness for children in Angola, Chad, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, Gaza and the West Bank, Haiti, Uganda and Sudan. She has appeared in more than 40 films and many theatrical productions. She is the author of a memoir, What Falls Away. The Presidential Medal of Honor was presented to Mia Farrow during her mission to the Central African Republic in 2007.

The actress and humanitarian activist says that in any genocide 95 per cent of us are capable of being led or enticed to a tipping point where we can pick up a machete and hack to death strangers and friends alike.

Before we start talking about the five books, as one of UNICEF’s goodwill ambassadors, you focus on how children are impacted by conflict and emergency. You have travelled all over Africa; what particular experience has really inspired you to believe in the importance of achieving the Millennium Development Goals?

I think in principle one has to set these goals and move towards them, otherwise where are we going? But, more specifically, whether travelling with UNICEF or on my own I am always struck by the children and how every child’s face is full of hope — even in the most difficult circumstances. So I feel we don’t have the luxury of being hopeless when it comes to other people. The Millennium Development Goals are absolutely achievable, if people put their shoulders to it and push. Just imagine what the world would look like if world leaders kept these goals in mind and on top of their agendas.

Your first choice, Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, is a collection of stories about women all over the world. In the opening pages they talk about ‘gendercide’, and how the daily slaughter of girls in the developing world steals more lives in any given decade ‘than all the genocides of the 20th century’. One of the Millennium Development Goals is to try and reach gender equality. From all you have seen travelling around the world and from the stories in the book do you think it is happening?

Sadly, in much of the world life is not better for women and girls. But I think there is a growing awareness in developing countries and I have seen clear evidence of that. There are strong women everywhere and many, even in the most remote corners of the world, are taking a very strong stand. Still, too many women and girls are sentenced to a life of hardship, deprivation and oppression.

Women across the world are doing so much of the labour without having any rights or reaping their share of the profits. There is a tragic lack of respect for women and girls and a failure to see women as being equal to men.

You may have seen in August how women, girls and babies too were raped in the Congo in one incident. This sort of brutality is not focused on a specific woman but it is a fundamental lack of respect for all women. Obviously, this must change. Change will come through education.  

I mean, I have been in conversation with women and asked – how many women were in your village before it was destroyed? And all too often the women will say: ‘Well, we don’t know numbers, ask the men – they know about numbers.’ It is not because they are not brilliant, which they are, or courageous, which they are. But, because of the way they are brought up, they think they don’t need to know, and they defer to the men. And the men assume they have that right. But this is beginning to change.

I hear there are various schemes in the Congo looking at how to change men’s view of women because many of them refer to them as being like objects with no value. Sometimes they don’t even think of them as proper human beings.

Yes, and we have seen that in different ways at different times in different countries. I mean, in my own country here in America, not that long ago African Americans were not regarded as a full human beings. They were denied the rights available to white people. Even the Founding Fathers reflected this. The right of American women to vote was not passed until 1919. Even I grew up in a generation where women on TV were largely in the kitchen.  

Is there a particular person that you have met recently who is changing women’s situations?

Yes, I was recently at a youth conference in Uganda where there were equal amounts of young men and young women who were extraordinary and they were discussing the Millennium Goals and the best ways to go about realising them in their respective countries. But the striking thing was that they themselves represented the force and strength that will be needed. There were young people who were already reaching out in their communities.

Also, an unsung and invaluable influence in remote areas of many of the countries I have visited are the aid workers themselves. Often they are women and they are working in positions of authority; organising, distributing, meeting people’s needs. Men have told me they have found themselves compelled to rethink their views of what a woman is because of the aid workers.  

There are signs of the beginning of change but it won’t be fast enough for my satisfaction. In my view patience is hugely overrated. I am not sure it is a virtue at all! Again, we come back to the goal of education. Change won’t happen without education.

Your next book is by Philip Gourevitch – We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda. Tell me about this?

Philip Gourevitch has written a riveting book about the Rwandan genocide and the title is part of a note to his pastor from a man who knew he was going to be killed the next day. This book examines the darkest side of human beings. As the mother of many children, including seven sons I realise the importance of bringing up my sons to find peaceful resolutions to conflict – the reality is that it is men who are the violent perpetrators. This killing component is very likely responsible for the survival of the human species over many, many centuries. But now our weaponry has succeeded our wisdom and we have not evolved away from the brutality that was useful to early human beings.

People are prone to saying, oh it was the Nazis, the Hutus, the Cambodians – it was somebody other than us. But when we do that we miss the point. We need to own up and take responsibility. And then, once again, we return to the value of education. I really believe that a part of our education is for us to look at ourselves in a clear, unblinking way.

I think there are few more riveting and horrifying books which bring the reader head to heart with this. There were remarkable acts of heroism. I have a Rwandan friend who survived the genocide; her family did not. In her analysis three per cent of us will run away and not want to kill. Two per cent will stand up and risk everything to help others, and the rest, 95 per cent of us, are capable of being led or enticed to a tipping point where we can pick up a machete and hack strangers and friends alike to death for 90 days. Of course, this is deeply, deeply depressing. But then I thought, two per cent is not nothing. It is something to start with. 

Daniel Goldhagen has written the book Worse than War and made a documentary from it.  It seems to be an exploration of why mass murder occurs and how to stop it?

He is also the author of Hitler’s Willing Executioners, an important and extremely powerful book which caused a stir when it was published. Mr Goldhagen points out that in the last century there has been an unbroken chain of genocides and mass murders resulting in 100 million deaths.

In Worse than War, Goldhagen lays out the elements; in order for genocide to take place, certain key components must be present: a leader with a political agenda who is able to use people’s existing fears, grievances, convictions or prejudices to convince them that another group poses a threat to their own security and well-being. Details are organised and put into action. Ordinary people choose to participate. Those with the power to halt the killing choose to do nothing.

As food becomes more scarce and as the world’s population grows, genocides will proliferate. Worse than War is a very thoughtful book about choice and what we can all do to influence our leaders and become more aware ourselves. I think it should be taught in every school.

Another magisterial work is A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, a book by Samantha Powers which is the book on genocide. Of course, it is hugely depressing but essential to have on your shelf. I tell my children that ‘with knowledge comes responsibility’. It is for this reason I chose these five books. Undeniably, we can and must do better as we move forward. Alternatively, we are moving toward an abyss.

Do you think that conflict is one of the key things that slows down the progress of the Millennium Development Goals?

I think it is all interwoven. Look at the Goals – there is one for protecting the environment and building partnerships for development and helping to reduce poverty. If these goals were realised, then it is far more likely that conflict will reduced.  

The Responsibility to Protect is written by Gareth Evans. The key theme in the book is that the state should be responsible for protecting its own people from mass atrocity crimes.  

Gareth Evans started International Crisis and is a person with a conscience as keen as his mind. As Australian foreign minister, he was a key broker of the United Nations peace plan for Cambodia. The Responsibility to Protect was a resolution unanimously adopted by the UN General Assembly at the 2005 World Summit but, unfortunately, these words have proved to be as hollow as ‘never again’.

In the book Mr Evans lays out practical ways to avoid genocide and the slaughter of innocents. Military intervention is only the very last resort and only if the benefits outweigh the likely negative effects of such an intervention. Rather, he focuses on the ‘toolboxes’ respected emissaries might bring to the table in dialogue with warring parties. A brilliant example is Kenya. When the church and homes were burnt in the Rift Valley and Kenya appeared to be moving towards uncontrollable violence, Kofi Annan and other respected leaders went to Kenya and were able to bring about the fragile peace that has held thus far. The ‘toolbox’ or sticks and carrots a dignitary might be authorised to bring to the table would depend on the country and its needs, whether it be loans or trade agreements or whatever. It is an excellent, practical and scholarly book which should be essential reading for all world leaders.

Good choices? What's missing? Write your thoughts below