Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and now Executive Director of the Ethical Globalisation Initiative, expressed disappointment at the fact that women's rights were not central to the debates of the 16th International AIDS Conference.
"Women's rights activists and NGOs are talked down to rather than actively included in the discussions," she observed, noting that there was a lot to learn from women's daily struggle at grassroots level.
Women's activists need to ensure that women's rights will be made a central theme at the next international AIDS conference in Mexico in 2008, Robinson demanded, complaining that only a small percentage of international funding reached HIV/AIDS initiatives targeting women and girls.
Women make up nearly 60 per cent of all HIV infections in Africa - in South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe, more than 75 per cent of HIV-positive people aged 15 to 24 years are female.
In South and South-east Asia, 35 per cent of those living with HIV are women. Crucially, the feminisation of HIV/AIDS goes hand-in-hand with the feminisation of poverty. According to the World Health Organisation, twice as many HIV-positive women in low-income settings require treatment than in high-income countries.
Activists at the conference were in agreement about how to reverse this trend. "We need to improve the conditions under which women can exercise their sexual and reproductive rights," demanded Sara Araya of Chilean NGO Vivo Positivo, adding that "young women are most vulnerable but have less access to health services [than men]".
In many developing countries, HIV-positive women have to face human rights abuses when trying to access medical services, such as coerced sterilisation, refusal of treatment or lack of access to contraception. Apart from the right to equitable medical services and treatment, women need social and economic rights to be able to decrease their vulnerability to HIV/AIDS.
Activists also demanded that women's rights be swiftly translated from theory to practice. "Change will only occur if we have legislation. Otherwise, women's rights will remain where they are now... on paper," declared Promise Mthembu, Global Advocacy Officer of the International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS.
Elizabeth Minda, an activist from Tanzania, agreed. "The situation of women still remains desperate," she said. "When a husband dies in rural Tanzania, his widow is also treated as a dead person and loses all social and land rights."