From Armenia to Zambia, thousands of activists turned out to sing in mighty cathedrals, light candles in city squares and march and hold dance-athons on World AIDS Day (search) as the United Nations focused on protecting women and girls, often sidelined in the fight against the disease.

Nearly half the 39.4 million people infected with HIV worldwide are female. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said three-quarters of all HIV-positive women live in sub-Saharan Africa. About 57 percent of the adults with HIV are women, he said.

"The number of women living with HIV (search) is on the rise in every region. Today the face of AIDS is increasingly young and female," said Peter Piot, head of UNAIDS.

"Prevention methods such as the ABC approach — Abstinence, Be faithful and use Condoms — are good, but not enough to protect women where gender inequality is pervasive," he said.

Laws must be passed against domestic abuse and rape and to make sure women have property rights because that will make them more secure and "far less vulnerable to HIV," Piot said. "We must be able to ensure that women can choose marriage, to decide when and with whom they have sex and to successfully negotiate condom use."

In Asia, where the disease claimed 540,000 lives this year, campaigners in Japan and South Korea handed out condoms (search). Thailand, Vietnam, and Bangladesh had marches, and the Philippines promoted HIV testing.

China ordered local officials to learn about the disease and televised a rare visit by President Hu Jintao to AIDS patients in a hospital.

With an estimated 840,000 infected with HIV, China has been criticized for reacting too slowly to the threat of AIDS. The United Nations has warned that China could have as many as 10 million people infected by 2010 if it doesn't take urgent action.

In southern Africa, red ribbons were tied to lamp posts and draped over buildings to promote AIDS awareness.

In a cricket match against India, South African players wore the ribbons. Zambians gathered for a candlelight memorial service in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in their capital, Lusaka. Soccer matches in Botswana were dedicated to the campaign.

"HIV/AIDS is not God's punishment of the wicked," Anglican Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane of South Africa said, appealing for tolerance. "AIDS is a preventable, treatable and manageable disease — no more, no less."

Malawi's President Bingu wa Mutharika said he wants at least 1 million of his 11 million people tested for HIV so his government can determine how many need anti-retroviral treatment.

"We want to have 80,000 people on ARVs by the end of 2005," he said. That would be nearly 10 times the number of Malawians now receiving free treatment.

Eastern Europe, where AIDS figures have jumped since the collapse of the Soviet Union, joined in the observance.

Serbia-Montenegro had live radio and television programs to increase awareness of how the disease spreads. In the Croatian capital, Zagreb, activists handed out condoms and sold Christmas cards made by AIDS-infected children.

And in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, an "Open Your Eyes" concert echoed through the Kaarli Church.

Portugal, which has one of the highest rates of new AIDS infections in western Europe, opened the new headquarters of an association to support AIDS patients.

A televised five-hour dance-a-thon was held simultaneously in the Dutch city of Arnhem and in Cape Town, South Africa, to raise money to fight AIDS.

One candle was lighted for each of the 1,800 people who have died of AIDS in Denmark during a ceremony in Copenhagen.

Victor Mooney, 40, of Woodhaven, N.Y., kicked off a campaign in Rome to raise $200,000 by selling bracelets to fund his rowing trip from Senegal to New York next year to raise AIDS awareness.

Piot took his message about improving the chances of women to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Hosted by actors Gloria Reuben and Alan Cumming, the event featured singer Mary Wilson and South Africa's Sinikithemba Choir.

"We will not be able to stop this epidemic unless we put women at the heart of the response to AIDS," Piot said in a statement released before his appearance at the cathedral.