In early August, Israa Ghrayeb, a 21-year-old Palestinian woman, went out with her soon-to-be fiancé on a chaperoned date. As all couples often do, Israa and her fiancé posted a video of their time together on social media. This innocent, loving video would soon incriminate Israa; after seeing the video, three male members of her family were angered, claiming that she had dishonored the family by appearing in public with a man who was not yet her husband. A few days later, these relatives physically attacked Israa, and due to her injuries resulting from this attack, she was hospitalized. Shortly after her hospitalization, a video filmed outside of Israa’s hospital room circulated online, in which Israa’s screams and intermittent thuds can be audibly heard; she was being beaten again. Israa died a day later. However, it is unfair to merely state that she died; Israa was murdered, the victim of an honor killing.
What are Honor Killings?
Honor killings and crimes are committed against a family member who is deemed to have acted socially or culturally unacceptably, and thus is seen to be bringing dishonor to the family. These are almost always carried out by male relatives, and the victim is almost always a woman; 93 percent of honor killing victims are women. According to the United Nations, 5,000 women and girls are victims of honor killings every year. Thus, while males are sometimes victims of honor killings as well, the following discourse pertaining to honor killings will focus solely on female victims.
What’s to Blame?
It is important to begin by noting that honor killings are strictly rooted in culture. Because honor killings are largely carried out in the Middle East/North Africa regions and South Asia, which are Muslim majority areas, Islam is often blamed for encouraging this practice. However, Islam cannot be identified as the culprit in these situations, as it strictly opposes such treatment of women. Further, women being murdered by male relatives or partners is not exclusive to Muslim majority countries; in France, 120 women were killed by their partners in 2018. Considering this is a phenomenon that is not restricted to one culture or region, the culprit is something that is shared across most societies of the world: misogyny, or prejudice against women. Most societies are still largely patriarchal, and thus have problems with women’s rights. While this is the case, many men within these societies are aware of the injustices women face and advocate for change, so it would be unfair to label all men as misogynistic. At the same time, though, many other men do ascribe to misogynistic ideologies, and often times, they act upon them. Honor killings are a blatant example of this; when males believe that their honor is tied to the behavior of the women in their lives, it is clear that misogyny is to blame. Further, to kill a girl in “honor” is to suggest that the girl is not her own person, but rather an object that is owned, emphasizing the misogyny underlying honor killings.
“The devil is not in the body of women; it is in your mind,” a powerful statement that was displayed on a sign of one of the protestors, is a fundamental notion that must be understood. The ideas that women are inherently inferior, and that women’s bodies are for men to control, are ideas that must be eradicated from our cultures and from predominant male thinking. To do this, certain steps must be taken. First, there needs to be a cultural upheaval involving both men and women to put an end to misogynistic belief systems. This is an effort that begins at a very grassroot level, and starts with changing mentalities of future generations; when boys and girls are raised the same, when boys are taught to respect and value women, when girls are empowered and are made to believe that they are not subservient or inferior to men, we slowly move towards making misogynistic ideologies obsolete. It is important to note this is not an effort that must only be undertaken by communities in the Arab world, but rather is an effort that should be undertaken by communities world-wide. Second, laws need to be put into place to hold men accountable for their abuse of women. It is insufficient to merely pass laws without also enforcing them, as men will believe that they can get away with their crimes without suffering any consequences.
Until the aforementioned changes are made within these societies, it is unlikely that any progress will be made. However, this is not an option; these societies were complicit in the deaths of many women and girls, including Israa. While they cannot bring back the lives that were taken, they must make these changes to ensure no more lives are taken in the name of “honor.”
“But the details about that night that bring me here today are ones I will never forget. They have been seared into my memory and have haunted me episodically as an adult.” – Christine Blasey Ford, 2018
Christine Blasey Ford spoke these words during her opening statement during a September 2018 hearing before the United States Senate Judiciary Committee. The purpose of the hearing was to determine if nominee Brett Kavanaugh was fit to serve on the United States Supreme Court. Blasey Ford said that when she and Kavanaugh were both teenagers, an extremely drunk Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her by groping her and trying to remove her clothes. When she tried to scream, he covered her mouth, and Blasey Ford said she was afraid that this action would suffocate her.
This testimony illustrates how many women have experienced physical and sexual violence. This testimony joins the many heartrending stories we’ve heard as part of the #MeToo and Time’s Up campaigns. The repercussions of this violence can linger long after the violence has ended. They can affect women for the rest of their lives and affect their loved ones and acquaintances. Violence thus creates a ripple effect that touches all parts of society, not just the women directly harmed by the acts of violence.
To address this violence, the United Nations (UN) sponsors the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women every year. In 2018, this day occurs on November 25, 2018. This day is part of the United Nations Secretary-General’s UNiTE Campaign’s 16 Days of Activism to End Violence Against Women.
What is violence against women?
Sadly, there are many types of violence against women. Violence can be physical, sexual, verbal, emotional, or a combination of these. It can be the threat of violence, such as threatening violence against women if they do or don’t do certain things. Violence can be against ciswomen (people who were born biologically female and identify as female). It can be against trans people or nonbinary individuals and sometimes occur because of their trans or nonbinary statuses. Women, nonbinary people, and trans individuals of color also might also encounter violence. This article refers to all women, nonbinary people, and trans individuals unless otherwise specified.
Violence can occur in public or it can occur in homes, schools, or workplaces. It can occur among strangers or among family members, coworkers, classmates, or teachers and students. Some people and groups use violence against women as a weapon of war, raping women and girls because they think the violence will serve as a sign of dominance and power. In this perspective, any pregnancies that result are an added bonus because the pregnancies perpetuate the dominant/violent lineage instead of the groups they’ve vanquished.
Some people commit violence against women simply because they feel that they can. They feel that they can get away with such behavior without suffering any negative repercussions. In this view, their feelings and physical needs are more important than the feelings of the women in their lives, even though, as we’ve seen, such actions can create lifelong consequences for the women and the people who know them. Such feelings of entitlement might partially explain the Kavanaugh/Blasey Ford incident. After all, when examining cultural problems, it helps to examine the cultures that created them.
How does culture contribute to violence?
Violence against women – or any violence – does not exist in a vacuum. Cultural forces often help to create and perpetuate violence against women. Even today, we hear the excuse “boys will be boys” in discussions of sexually aggressive behavior by men and boys. People still question whether women are inviting sexual aggression by their choice of clothes, their behavior, their decision to go places alone, and their drinking habits. While such attitudes exist in the United States, they are sometimes even more pronounced in other countries. Honor killings are a sadly common occurrences in some parts of the world. There were about 1,100 such murders in Pakistan alone in 2015.
In honor killings, people kill their female relatives because they believe that the females’ actions have shamed their families. In this view, shameful actions include dancing, working outside of the home, appearing on social media, dating, not marrying the families’ choices of suitors, or even being raped (even though rape is obviously not a person’s fault). People also worry that women will falsely accuse their sons of rape, even though their daughters are far more likely to experience sexual violence. And this is only for reported incidents of violence. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that people report 35 percent of sexual assaults to the police. This means that people do not report almost two-thirds of all sexual assaults.
Why? One only has to observe what happened to Christine Blasey Ford. Because she recounted her experiences, she
Received death threats.
Moved with her family from their home because she feared for their safety.
Faced intense scrutiny from politicians, the media, and the U.S. public.
“I have had to relive my trauma in front of the entire world, and have seen my life picked apart by people in television, in the media, and in this body who have never met me or spoken with me,” Christine Blasey Ford admitted. Meanwhile, the man she accused, Brett Kavanaugh, still became a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Is it any wonder why women and trans and nonbinary people are often reluctant to report violence against them? Even if they speak out, do people really listen? Are people really willing to take actions to deal with such violence or prevent such violence in the first place?
How does violence affect women and society at large?
If people don’t listen to women’s stories of violence, take action to remedy them, or try to prevent violence, there are repercussions. Violence harms women, the people around them, and society at large. Ending the culture of violence against is the responsibility of societies and the governments that represent them. On a political level, such efforts protect and encourage half of the population, a population that votes and can support governments that support them (or withhold their support for unsupportive politicians and governments).
More importantly, such efforts are imperative on a human rights level. Ending a culture of violence against women ensures that all of a society’s citizens are respected and can fully experience society. It allows people to advance instead of holding people down. Violence causes immediate physical and emotional harm. It also can also create long-lasting consequences. For example, women who have been raped might
Contract a sexually transmitted disease such as HIV/AIDS.
Face unwanted pregnancies.
Struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other mental health conditions.
Develop a drug addiction or a dependence on alcohol because they are using substances to try to forget the attack.
Encounter problems at school or work because the attack led to absences or made it difficult to concentrate.
Experience shame and stigmatization from people who believe that they were responsible for the rape.
Find it difficult to begin new relationships or manage existing ones.
Deal with fear, anger, and other emotions.
These consequences are complex and require extensive professional help. Help is also necessary to address other aspects of violence. That’s because violent attacks hurt more than just women. They hurt their families because the families see how much the women in their lives are struggling. The women may also be unable to engage with others because of such attacks.
Violent attacks prevent women from contributing to their homes and workplaces. But, more importantly, they stifle women and violate their human rights. They could make women fearful of doing things that they might feel trigger such attacks, although violence is not their fault, but the fault of perpetrators. They might be afraid to do anything because of such attacks. This fear could paralyze them, prevent them from living full lives, and deprive society of their contributions.
How can people prevent such violence?
It’s imperative, then, to prevent violence against women. Governments, people, and organizations are working to do just that. UN Women, part of the United Nations, has discussed the commitments and efforts of several countries around the world who have pledged to end violence against women. Such efforts include general commitments to investigate violence and work with groups to end and prevent it. UN Women also discussed specific actions, such as the country of Senegal’s creation of a hotline to help women and the country of Australia’s creation of a public campaign promoting respectful relationships and a project to promote workplace safety for women.
The annual United Nations-backed International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and the 16 Days of Activism to End Violence Against Women are examples of such efforts. The Center for Women’s Global Leadership’s Global Leadership Institute originated the 16 Days of Activism in 1991.
From the start, the organization and its work were inclusive. According to a website for the 16 Days of Activism campaign, the first participants in 1991 came from different countries in all of the world’s regions and were drawn from a variety of fields – lawyers, policymakers, teachers, health care workers, researchers, journalists, and activists. These women were local civil society leaders with at least two years of experience in women’s organizing who were also interested in building the global women’s human rights movement.
While this antiviolence campaign has always been global, it is interesting that it began at a time of great debate about violence against women in the United States. That’s because 1991 was also the year that law professor Anita Hill testified that Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her. Clarence Thomas, like Brett Kavanaugh, was a nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court. Thomas, like Kavanaugh, became a justice of the court despite the accusations against him.
Is it any wonder why organizations continue to sponsor efforts to end violence and harassment against women? For example, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, November 25, 2018, inaugurates these 16 Days of Activism to End Violence Against Women. International Human Rights Day, December 10, 2018, ends these 16 Days of Activism.
The timing of these days illustrates how the United Nations and other organizations consider violence not just a women’s problem, but a human rights issue. It sends the message that violence against women is a blight on humanity that concerns us all, not just the people immediately affected. Orange Is the World: #HearMeToo is the theme for 2018’s 16 Days of Activism campaign. This campaign builds on the momentum of movements such as #MeToo and Time’s Up. The UN Women and the Secretary-General’s UNiTE Campaign says that the color orange is intended to “symbolize a brighter future without violence. For us, the ‘orange’ comes from the fire ignited by the many women’s groups dedicated to combating violence against women around the world.”
To combat this violence, #HearMeToo has championed inclusiveness. It has encouraged people to share their stories of violence and created spaces for people to share them. It has shared their stories through digital and print media. It has sponsored listening events that included voices from all sectors, aiming to “create opportunities for dialogue between activists and policy makers, private sector organizations and the public.”
Other organizations are speaking out about violence. The NoVo Foundation founded the Move to End program to end violence against women and girls. The Move to End program’s On the Move blog contains several stories about efforts to end violence and encourages people to contribute as guest bloggers. Several other sites also feature blogs that encourage contributors, such as Ms. magazine. These blogs provide information. They provide a forum for people to share this information so they can speak and others can listen. Listening may sound simple, but it’s a vital step. Violence uses power to silence victims. Letting voices be heard helps dispel fear, secrecy, and uncertainty.
Pam Zuber is a writer and editor who has written about a wide variety of topics, including politics, addiction, and gender.
Afghanistan has had a long history of being a patriarchal society. Cultural customs that have suppressed the rights of women have been popularized and justified on the basis of morality. With these customs largely targeting women behavior, Afghani women are faced daily with gender inequality. One of the most brutal threats is the risk of a barbaric practice called virginity testing. Many women at some point are forced to go through the painful examination. The procedure involves a medical professional forcing two fingers inside of the women’s vagina, often forced and against her wishes, in order to determine if the women’s hymen is still intact. One might ask why anyone would force women to endure an assault on their most private areas. The terrible answer is that virginity testing is done to ensure that the woman has not had sexual relations with any man.
In Afghanistan and other countries such as India that widely practice virginity testing, a woman’s virginity is highly coveted. It is a symbol of modesty and purity. The societal expectation is that it is never okay for women to have any sexual experiences outside of marriage. Women’s actions are extremely regulated and controlled by the men of the family. Having a virginity test is often required for many basic rights such as the option to go to school, obtain a job, or get married. Faced with limited choices, many women see no other way than to submit to the test out of fear of the repercussions.
The punishments for defying these unfair gender inequalities is severe. In fact, an Afghan woman found to have had sex before marriage is subject to prosecution and imprisonment under what is known as a ‘moral crime.’ The societal penalties extend much further than jail time. Girls are thought to have had premarital sex are publicly humiliated after word spreads of their failed virginity test. They are often ostracized by their families for bringing shame upon them. Some families will go so far as to commit honor killings which is the murder of a woman by her male family members for bringing shame upon the family. For a society to criminalize female sexuality and even threaten death is an egregious violation of female human rights.
The United Nations, World Health Organization, United Nations Women, and the United Nations Human Rights Council have all called for a global ban on the practice. However, this will not do these women much good. These organizations have no ability to enforce their will and can only hope to draw attention to the issue. There are many reasons to campaign for an end to virginity testing; for the purpose of this blog, I will highlight three. The first and most obvious reason is the disregard for a women’s right to say no. A woman should be allowed to deny any medical procedure that she does not wish to have for any reason. Any vaginal procedure done without consent is sexual and physical assault.
The second reason to outlaw this practice is that it continues unfair gender inequality and enforces unhealthy stereotypes. Why are only women required to undergo testing for sexual ‘purity’? Why is it that it is considered immoral for women to be sexually active and not men? This problem extends far beyond Afghanistan and is a worldwide issue. There is a clear gender bias against women having sex. On the other hand, men are often complimented for their sexual prowess. If gender equality is to be realized, then there needs to be a cultural cleansing of the many double standards placed on women.
Lastly, the most damning reason why vaginal testing shouldn’t be used is that it doesn’t work. The World Health Organization has found that there is no scientific basis for the claim that a torn hymen is evidence that a woman has had sexual intercourse. In fact, they have found that there are many nonsexual ways that the hymen can be damaged. For instance, the use of a tampon or being physically active in sports like gymnastics can cause the hymen to break. The sole reason for subjecting women to this painful test is to confirm that they are virgins. If a virginity test can’t prove whatsoever that they are or aren’t virgins then there is no logical explanation to continue this practice.
Currently, there are several thousand women, many as young as 13, imprisoned for failing one of these inconclusive virginity tests. On top of being imprisoned with faulty evidence for an unjust crime, these girls are subjected to terrible prison conditions. Farhad Javid is in charge of Afghanistan’s division of Marie Stopes International, an organization focused on protecting women’s sexual rights. Javid recently visited the Mazar-i-Sharif prison where many women convicted of ‘moral’ crimes are held. He found that these women face severe overcrowding, lack of access to proper healthcare, and constant, daily sexual assault. Women falsely convicted of having sex have reported being frequently forced to have sex with prison guards and staff. Due to the lack of reliable evidence of these women’s alleged crimes and the inhumane treatment these girls are facing in prison, Javid is campaigning for the immediate release of all women being imprisoned for ‘moral’ crimes.
Unfortunately, even after being released from prison these women will have lasting problems. For the rest of their lives, they will have to deal with the trauma and memories of the forced virginity test as well as the sexual abuse they underwent in prison. On top of this, they will likely have a hard time finding stability. Despite being falsely convicted with invalid evidence, their reputations have been permanently and irreparably stained. For most of these girls, their families have already disowned them. They have no intention of taking back a daughter who they believe to have committed ‘moral’ atrocities that have brought shame upon their family. Also, these girls have been imprisoned at young ages and have not completed an education or have been married. With no family, husband, or education to support themselves with and nowhere to go these women’s future outlooks are grim. There aren’t many resources available to women in Afghanistan without a family or support system. The majority will end up at overcrowded and underfunded women’s shelters. Without proper protection, they are in constant threat of violence or rape. Their lives will be constantly haunted by this ordeal like being branded by a scarlet letter.
It is astounding how easy it is for these women’s entire lives to be turned upside down. Simply walking down the street with a boy or getting a ride home from a boy is enough to get reported to the police by family members or neighbors. The authorities waste no time ordering a virginity test. Despite the girl having done nothing wrong, there is a real and terrifying chance that she will fail the unreliable test and be imprisoned. It is obvious that much change is needed to prevent this same tragedy from happening to more innocent young girls.
The solution to this problem lies at the local level. If the people are well-informed about the test’s ineffectiveness, then they will stop requesting the examination take place. A massive public relations campaign could be used to accomplish this task. Local governments need to partner with the many nonprofit organizations committed to helping improve the rights of women. By doing so these local governments will have the necessary funding and manpower to launch a public relations campaign with individuals well qualified to teach the public about the ineffectiveness of virginity testing. Another solution is proposed by Javid and the Marie Stopes Afghanistan. Recently Marie Stopes helped the Afghanistan government to create a new policy that discourages doctors from pursuing these tests. The policy states that virginity tests have no scientific credibility and should not be administered by health care professionals for the purpose of determining if a girl is a virgin. Marie Stopes is sending out doctors to both train hospital staff and ensure the new policy is carried out and taken seriously at each hospital in Afghanistan. This initiative aims to tackle the problem by reducing the credibility of virginity testing. If no licensed doctors are willing to perform the procedure due to official public policy, then the hope is that law enforcement will stop requesting and in some cases pressuring doctors to conduct virginity testing on suspected girls. Law enforcement will be forced to subject girls to exams by unlicensed non-professionals if they wish to continue the use of virginity testing. This will lower the integrity of their claims of proving the state of a girl’s virginity and will surely aid in gaining local support to end the barbaric practice.
If the work to accomplish this solution is continued, then real progress will be made. If the government and culture of Afghanistan can be open to a small amount of change then thousands of other girls can be saved from such terrible experiences. While there are many other unfair gender practices common in this region, this campaign will be a large step towards the path to gender equality. With continued public relations campaigns and pressure for governmental action, an Afghan society that treats women fairly and empowers them to be in control of their lives will be enacted.
“And the Oscar goes to, Mad Max! No.” The audience laughs as they await the announcement from host Louis C.K. for the winner of the 2016 Best Documentary Short. He pauses, then reads “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy!” Applause erupts as Obaid-Chinoy makes her way to the stage, and during her brief acceptance speech she reveals that “Last week, the Pakistani Prime Minister has said that he will change the law on honor killing after watching this film. That is the power of film.” Another round of applause sweeps across the theater as the crowd cheers the progress made to end this extreme case of violence against women.
Obaid-Chinoy’s film focuses on eighteen-year-old Saba, a Pakistani girl who was the victim of an attempted honor killing, defined by the BBC as “the murder of a person accused of ‘bringing shame’ upon their family. Victims have been killed for refusing to enter a marriage, committing adultery or being in a relationship that displeased their relatives. In many instances, the crimes are committed by family members against a female relative.” Saba survived the encounter, and the resulting documentary chronicling her experience caught the attention of human rights activists around the world. Pressure from these groups was put on the Pakistani government to change the law allowing the perpetrators of honor crimes to avoid charges should the victim or relatives of the victim forgive them, and as of October 2016 the law was changed so that there are now mandatory prison sentences for those who commit an honor killing. However, this is not the case for every country, as other loopholes exist to protect the perpetrator while simultaneously punishing the victim.
During my stay in Jordan, a second film on honor crimes caught my attention. Shown to the local community at the Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation in downtown Amman, I sat with 50 other people as we watched If You Meant to Kill Me, a 2014 feature length documentary by Jordanian filmmaker Widad Shafakoj. Her film spotlights Jordanian women who are survivors of honor crimes but were detained in prison by the state “for their own protection” due to the lack of shelters serving victims in the community. These women would spend years inside their cell, released only after a family member signs a paper stating they would not harm her or until the guards arbitrarily decide to let her go. Once released, the women often have no money, no community connections, and no support to help them start again.
Jordanians who commit honor crimes face the threat of arrest in theory, but traditions and stigmas going back generations have created informal barriers to prevent the perpetrators from conviction. An honor crime is not committed by a single individual but instead multiple individuals, ranging from immediate family members to a group within the community. This poses a difficulty for police to convict participants because they must identify an entire social network. To counter this difficulty, they have adopted a second approach that only involves a single person: the female target/survivor. By putting the target/survivor in jail, it relieves the justice system of the stress of convicting an entire family or worrying about another crime being committed. The system also faces little backlash for this decision as the families of the women imprisoned accomplishes two tasks. Without advocates to help their case, the female target/survivor resorts to her families for a signature for release; thus, exposing herself to a future risk of violence.
Jordan is publicizing its work on improving other women’s issues inside of its borders, with some measured success. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979, and ratified by Jordan in 1992 with the intention of allowing women to have equal rights under the law. However, Jordan still maintains two reservations to the document:
The first reservation is against Article 9, which states that women and men should be granted equal rights in transferring their nationality to their children. Currently, a child of a Jordanian man and a foreign woman can take Jordanian citizenship, but a child of a Jordanian woman and a foreign man cannot take Jordanian citizenship without a special identification card. The second reservation is against Article 16, which states “Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations.” Here is where the difficulty lies, for within a marriage the woman has far less legal power and is therefore tied to the relationship formally and informally, even when violence is introduced.
Freedom House, in 2010, reported that while “domestic abuse is a valid reason for initiating such a divorce, it is often very difficult for a woman to prove her case, because Shari‘a courts require the testimony of two male witnesses.” This poses a significant deterrent for victims to come forward as their own testimony will not be adequate in a court of law. They also risk forced imprisonment for their safety should they come forward, making the risk even less of an option. Besides acting to protect their own safety, the women also shoulder the burden of staying to protect their children. Freedom House reports that the father is the de facto guardian of his children, and while the mother may be able to leave with the children initially, should she remarry she would lose custody. This forces the mother into a position of staying in an abusive situation, where there is a threat of death, or leaving without the security of a second income source to support herself and her children.
With the outcry growing louder to find a better solution for these women instead of placing them in protective imprisonment, a small number of departments and shelters developments give an attempt at a solution. The Jordanian government created the Family Protection Department within the Public Security Directorate in 1997 to work specifically on cases of domestic violence and sexual assault; however, their focus is children in the family, instead of the women. In 1999, the Jordanian Women’s Union opened a shelter capable of housing 20 women. The Family Reconciliation Centre opened its first house for 50 women in 2007 and a second in 2009 for 80 women. A
Between the three current shelters, a maximum of 150 women can be protected in a non-prison environment, but with a population of 9.5 million as of 2016, the number of shelters are incredibly too small to adequately serve the women of Jordan. Even if women are gaining more rights to interact equally in the public sphere, the lack of safety for some women in the private sphere blocks them from participating in this progress.
The dedication of more resources is necessary to ensure the women in danger are properly cared for in a safe environment. Additionally, attention to convicting perpetrators is imperative; allowing the women to reenter society knowing they are not at risk for future harm. Freedom House does note that Jordan is taking steps to enact more punishments that are forceful: “stricter sentences are now issued for honour killings and a new specialized tribunal was set up by the Ministry of Justice in 2009 to hear such cases.” The arrests of those committing the acts must occur immediately to hasten the release of the victimized women presently held indefinitely within the Jordanian prison system.
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