Gender equality and the empowerment of women are key to slowing the spread of AIDS, the United Nations agency coordinating the fight against the epidemic said Thursday in Nairobi.
"The most significant development of the AIDS epidemic is its growing feminisation," lamented UNAIDS chief Peter Piot, who was speaking at the International Women's Summit on HIV/AIDS held in Kenya.
"What entered history 25 years ago as a disease of the white gay male is now increasingly affecting women all over the world," he told some 1,500 delegates.
In sub-Saharan Africa, 60 percent of all adults living with the virus are female. Piot cited the example of Kenya, where the ratio reaches 67 percent.
"As an optimist, I am a firm believer that catastrophes also offer opportunities. So let's turn the paradigm upside down and make sure that the response to AIDS leverages a fatal blow to the disempowerment of women," he said.
"If it worked with gay rights, it must work with women's rights."
World Health Organisation Director General Margaret Chan said cultural obstacles to the advancement of women needed to be overcome if the virus, which affects 39.5 million people worldwide, was to be brought under control.
"We must also seize every opportunity for women to learn their infection status. Being married is not safe ... Women can turn the tide in this epidemic. Women are best placed to make existing tools work," she said.
As of June 2006, around one million Africans were receiving antiretroviral drugs which roll back the AIDS virus, a tenfold increase since December 2003.
But this was still less than a quarter of the estimated 4.6 million people in need of the drugs.