There was little debate between Pen Mony and her husband when it came to deciding who would take the expensive HIV drugs that swallowed their small income. “We were too poor to buy medicine for both of us, so we spent the money on treatment for my husband—even though I needed to take it too,” Pen, now an AIDS activist in her native Cambodia, told POZ this week at the eighth International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (ICAAP) in Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo. Then when Pen’s husband died anyway, her in-laws blamed her for his death.

The prejudice and isolation faced by positive women in the region have come up again and again at the August 19-23 meeting, which has drawn some 3,500 delegates from 60 countries. Women account for almost 30 percent of new infections in Asia and the Pacific, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)—and the figure is a staggering 60 percent in Papua New Guinea and 40 percent in Thailand. “With little or no control over their sexual lives and burdened by abuse, exploitation and violence, women in the region are extremely vulnerable to HIV,” the agency said in a statement.

Add money troubles into the mix—as in Pen Mony’s case—and the gap widens still more. Extreme poverty in many of the region’s countries sometimes even compels women to sell their free quotas of HIV drugs in order to put food on the table, says Naoko Kawana, who works with the Bangkok-based Asia Pacific Network of People Living With HIV/AIDS.
Then women can’t hold on to what they do have because of antiquated restrictions on inheritance rights—a topic that was front and center last weekend at the first-ever Asia Pacific Court of Women on HIV, Inheritance and Property Rights. “Burdened by the care of their spouses, illnesses and the responsibility of the household,” says Caitlin Wiesen of the UNDP, “women living with or affected by HIV are often denied their rightful access to property when their spouses die. Blamed, abused and expelled from marital homes, HIV-positive women are often denied access to their children as well.”

The total number of positive people in Asia and the Pacific has dropped in the past two years from 8.3 million to 5.4 million, according to the United Nations Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). But with nearly a million new infections—young people account for half that number—and 640,000 deaths recorded since 2005, UNAIDS is urging governments this week to spend more on prevention and treatment.

Activists are also using the occasion of ICAAP this week to campaign against mandatory testing of migrant workers, of whom there are some 53 million in Asia alone, according to the Kuala-Lumpur-based CARAM Asia network. Andrew Samuels of Sri Lanka’s Community Development Services described the practice as “discriminatory, dehumanizing and resulting in the violation of basic rights, especially the right to health.”

HIV is an excuse for governments to degrade migrants’ already second-rate status—in much the same way the virus helps set women back. “HIV deepens the prevalent gender inequalities driving the epidemic in the region,” says the UNDP’s Wiesen. Not being allowed to get treatment because you’re the wife, not the husband, is just the tip of the iceberg.