“He’s one of the most outspoken and effective advocates for women and girls I know.… As an activist, he’s using those skills to get the world talking about the fact that ending extreme poverty begins with empowering women and girls.” —Melinda Gates, philanthropist and 2013 Woman of the Year
When humanitarian and rock icon Bono learned that he was being honored by Glamour as the first-ever Man of the Year, he called his wife of 34 years, Ali Hewson, to give her the news. “I asked did she think I deserved it. She wasn’t sure,” Bono tells me with a laugh. “She said I’ve work to do!”
U2’s front man has no doubts. “I’m sure I don’t deserve it,” he says. “But I’m grateful for this award as a chance to say the battle for gender equality can’t be won unless men lead it along with women. We’re largely responsible for the problem, so we have to be involved in the solutions.”
I’m on Glamour’s side: I think Bono is the perfect choice for this first-time honor because, now 56, he’s been trying to do good for as long as he’s been making music. I first met Bono, born Paul David Hewson, in Sarajevo over New Year’s 1996, shortly after peace accords ended the Bosnian civil war that November. It was the first time in four years that the guns were silent and the people of that beautiful city could celebrate by taking to the concert halls and cafés. I got pulled into a crowded car one night, heading for a party, and there was Bono. Our two-decade humanitarian friendship was launched.
And while my friend has sold 170 million albums and won 22 Grammys, what I admire most about him is his extraordinary talent for tackling problems that seem intractable—and making mighty and measurable gains. It’s not every superstar (or, for that matter, statesman) who can bring about $100 billion in debt cancellation for 35 of the world’s poorest countries, or persuade the U.S. government to pony up the largest contribution ever for lifesaving AIDS drugs in Africa, as President George W. Bush did in 2004.
Now Bono has created Poverty Is Sexist, a new campaign specifically aimed at helping the world’s poorest women—those who survive on less than $2 a day. “Women bear the burdens of poverty,” Bono says, meaning they are far less likely than men to have access to food, clean water, education, and health care; laws in many parts of the world don’t protect them from sexual violence or allow them to own the land they work. By establishing Poverty Is Sexist, Bono is making it clear that powerful men can, and should, take on these deep-rooted issues.
Women have always strongly influenced him in his work. Just one example: During his impassioned effort in the 1990s to get antiretroviral drugs to the rural poor in South Africa, Bono met an HIV-positive woman named Prudence who had come to share her story with him instead of attending the funeral of her sister. In her town, she explained, there weren’t enough antiretroviral drugs to go around—Prudence had gotten the pills because she could campaign for help from the outside world, while her sister, a mother who had to stay home with her children, went without and died of AIDS. “Prudence told me, ‘Letting the world know what we’re up against is more important than going to my sister’s funeral,’ ” he recalls. Though stunned by her words, Bono says, he understood, because at that time in certain parts of Africa, “HIV/AIDS was a death sentence. Imagine going to a football match and thinking, A third of these people in this stadium are going to die. This was a war, and women were at the front line of fighting that war.”
Today 17 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are on lifesaving AIDS drugs, up from 300,000 in 2000, thanks in great part to the work of Bono and ONE, the international volunteer advocacy organization he cofounded in 2004. Now he hopes Poverty Is Sexist can have a similar impact. The campaign created a detailed report documenting the link between poverty and gender and sent it this year on March 8, International Women’s Day, to every president and prime minister in the world. Included in the data: the fact that, in Africa, young women account for the majority—74 percent—of all new AIDS cases among adolescents, which is why one of the campaign’s first aims was to coax bigger contributions to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. In August, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau became the first head of state to step up, raising Canada’s contribution to the global fund by 20 percent. Other fund members followed suit, increasing donations by a total of $13 billion—money that will help save 8 million lives and prevent 300 million new infections by 2019. Those are real women and babies whose lives have been saved—and that is Bono’s legacy.
I ask the first Glamour Man of the Year why so few men are willing to rally around women’s causes. “Men can be a bit thick,” he says. “And I include myself. Honestly, things that ought to be obvious sometimes are not.” What’s obvious to Bono (the father of two daughters and two sons, feminists and activists all ): “We can do much more than we think we can. Leaders are accountable to all of us. If they don’t support women and girls, vote them out of office. To quote Nelson Mandela, ‘It always seems impossible—until it’s done.’ ”