Between the institutionalisation of gender issues, feminist political radicalism, and even exercising direct democracy, feminism exists in many forms, particularly in Africa. In order to analyse the different forms of mobilisation taken by African women’s organisations, it is first necessary to explore the relationships that exist between the movements created by these organisations, and the states in which they operate. The examples given here will be limited to South Africa and Senegal.
Firstly, it appears that African women’s movements maintain “ambiguous” relationships with states; that they oscillate between focussing their efforts at the local and global levels. On the one hand, women’s movements have expectations and make demands on states, to the extent that they depend on them (and in doing so, come to belong to them). On the other hand, the state and its representatives, the bodies who are entrusted with power, maintain either demagogic or political relationships with women’s organisations, and use them to bolster their own power. Governments use women’s movements as a means of understanding and controlling the debates which permeate civil society. These two approaches exist in a highly globalised context, permeable to external forces, particularly those based in the North, and inscribed in a fundamental social transformation based on economic liberalism and the spread of information communication technologies (ICTs) which has accompanied it.
A distinction should be made between women’s movements and feminist movements in Africa (Sow 2007); the former refers to groups connected with implementing the results achieved through the activism of the latter, who are concerned with the struggle; who fight for equality at the political level. Further to this distinction, the very marked generational gaps that exist in Africa are isolating and weakening some movements; particularly through the different use of ICT, and apprehension about the information society which is now integral to the fight for women’s rights.
In order to deconstruct these dichotomies, this paper will go back to the source: the recent birth of the states of Senegal and South Africa. Since these states became independent, since the end of apartheid and the advent of parliamentary democracy, law, political discourse and party activity all seem to have remained masculine domains. In these states, whose heritage is colonisation, the ability to actively exercise citizenship remains a privilege reserved for the male half of the population. In order have political influence, African women activists have to create specific spaces – forever on the fringe of the official parties themselves, while systematically supporting them.
In Senegal, the work of women’s organisations covers forms of discrimination as diverse as access to land, credit, health, education or technology, the right to contraception, parental authority, access to power, parity in politics, polygamy, violence and sexuality – yet these subjects are not considered in government, not even by the progressive political parties (Sow 2007). In South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC) has always deployed gender-balanced discourse, as part of a wider ethical rhetoric which also takes into account the racial and class divisions that permeate society. Ironically, this rhetoric slows down any real efforts to abolish this nation’s patriarchal system of government; a situation which has daily consequences for the citizens of these states.
In light of this situation, the political efforts of women’s organisations have never been rewarded or recognized; neither during nor after these countries’ fights for national independence. Furthermore, women’s organisations do not seem to truly recognize nor understand, from personal experience, the issues that are posed by the global information society; this is pushing them away from politics, and instead towards the everyday issues confronting women in these societies. Inversely, this situation has led some women activists to return to radical and innovative forms of activism, and to politicising concepts including citizenship (McFadden 2005), justice (Maitrayee & Singh 2009), equality, and governance (Taylor 2002). This article will examine the possibility that these new forms of engagement will lead to new forms democracy, free of inequalities of class, race and gender which continue to feature in current dominant political discourse. Is it possible, as Spivak (2009) has noted, that gender (and geopolitical) relations of domination and subordination are in the process of being overthrown?
The consequences of post-colonisation: states exploiting women’s movements
The collateral damage of ‘politics’ in Senegal
While some Senegalese women’s groups have always supported political parties, others have come in support of them in their quest for political action. In 1960, when Senegal gained independence, the single-party ruling Union Progressiste Sénégalaise (Progressive Senegalese Union) (UPS), led by Léopold Sédar Senghor, integrated the Union nationale des Femmes du Sénégal (National Union of Senegalese Women) (UFS). Senghor considered very carefully the role women would play in his plans for an African take on socialism. As ‘father of the nation’, Senghor did not envision building a nation without women’s support, and intended to modernise their role in Senegalese society.
Senghor established “Foyers Féminins” (‘Women’s Centre’s) across the country. These were led by UPS female activists of the party, who recruited Senegalese women from rural areas, with the aim of educating women – as wives, mothers, workers and citizens. Such discourse unambiguously viewed women as child bearers and minors in need of education (Cisse 2002). Senghor’s paternalist approach was underlined when he eventually put the UPS’s National Council of Women under the supervision of one man and two male deputies who were nominated by his government.
In the 1970s, new women’s movements emerged, declaring themselves feminist and apolitical. In doing so, these movements removed themselves from the sphere of power. In 1977, the Fédération des associations féminines du Sénégal (Federation of Senegalese women’s associations) (FAFS) put forward several new demands, yet remained linked to the state. From 1981 onwards, however, under the presidency of the former Prime Minister, Abdou Diouf, approaches to feminism within the Senegalese state began to change. The new president wanted to make his mark and turn away from the focus on black identity (Negritude) championed by his predecessor. Like Senghor before him, Diouf, was involved in the actions of women’s movements, operating them remotely. He officially supported the empowerment of women, and created la Fédération nationale des groupements de promotion féminine (National federation of associations empowering women).
These organisations would become the cornerstones of the president’s new approach to development, and the basis for feminism in 1990s Senegal. After the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995), these groups began receiving financial and political support from international organisations, including the International Labour Organisation (ILO), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
During this period, other, more radical, but marginal, movements were demanding equal rights for men and women, with a core focus on rejecting the laws on marriage and inheritance set out in Senegal’s Code de la famille (Family Code). At the same time, the Conseil sénégalais des femmes (Senegalese Council of Women) (COSEF) were politically active, and ensured the creation of a law forbidding female genital mutilation (FGM) in 1999, and reform to tax law in 2001, while issues of polygamy and the right to joint custody continued to be problematic. During this period, feminists faced attack from Islamic groups – notably the Collectif islamique pour la réforme du Code de la famille du Sénégal (Islamic collective for the reform of the Family Code) (CIRCOFS) – but became caught up in theory, defending the rights they had already won, rather than fighting to acquire new ones.
More recently, in 2007, Senegal began allowing the recruitment of women to the armed forces, with the formation of new contingents of fifty female recruits each in the military police (APS: 2007). This “feminisation” of the army, as then president Abdoulaye Wade described it, was extended with the recruitment of 300 “ranked servicewomen” in 2008. Then
the president clearly wanted this to be seen as “an meaningful symbol” of progress towards gender integration, adding the slogan: “les femmes ont leur place dans tous les secteurs d’activités de la nation” (“women have a place in all sectors of the nation”). Despite this, in Senegal, women make up only 13% of government and 22% of parliament (Sarr 2007). During the municipal elections of 2009, parity was a source of debate in all parties, including that of then president Wade, the PDS (Senegalese Democratic Party).
The obstacles encountered in these debates on parity reflect how women’s rights activists are viewed: they are recognised as animators rather than enactors of change, and their struggles are not reflected in the hierarchy of power. This phenomenon can in part be explained by the role bestowed on the wives of heads of state, as spokeswomen on women’s rights. This process, in fact, obstructs the work of both women’s and feminist organisations.
Within political parties, women activists are “tolerated” while they lead discussions, but remain marginal characters within political office, and are rejected, or excluded, when they question the party line. In fact, while figures may show an improvement in women’s representation in politics, this is largely a consequence of the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women, for which the government produced an official “National report on women, the fight for equality, development and peace”, in which it recognized that the ‘marginalisation of women, within political parties, validates the argument that these women are simply used, in most cases, to win votes’. Through the Beijing conference, funding bodies of international organisations seemed to become aware of the issues important to women, and have used these concerns in order to better put pressure on indebted countries (Sarr 2007).
Paradoxically, women activists in Senegal do not seem to be subverting or reshaping the male-dominated political channels of communication in order to establish new rules which could ensure more democratic governance.
South Africa: Feminism stifled by rhetoric
In 1992, feminist activists created the Women’s National Coalition of South Africa. The aim of this institution, which brought together 54 South African women’s groups, was to ensure the creation of equal opportunities and equal rights before the law. In the constitution of South Africa, Act 108 of 1996 was promulgated and included in the Bill of Rights. Chapter 2, section 9 (3) of this Act states that ‘the State may not unfairly discriminate, directly or indirectly, against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language or birth’ (Morrison 2004: 2).
Since 1993, the introduction of new equality and anti-discrimination laws, and affirmative action policies, have benefited women and, to a certain extent, helped to improve the slow process of integrating women into professions which have previously been hugely male-dominated (Nel & Bezuidenhout 1995).
Nevertheless, throughout South Africa’s fight for independence, women were considered only “peripheral” members of the nation, as the bearers of children for the revolution, and did not enter equal at the top of the anti-apartheid power. In this context, speaking of gender inequality led to accusations of divisionism. However, between 1981 and 1984, black women became engaged at the local level with the African National Congress (ANC), and created the United Women’s Organisation, the Federation of Transvaal Women, and the Natal Organisation of Women (Hassim 2006: 47). These women spent a large amount of time in debate with trade unions, in which, far from ignoring criticism of capitalist systems and apartheid, they added the discussion of sex division, when speaking about the inferior status they had been dealt in their social circles, and in their daily lives (facing a double workload, being forbidden by husbands to participate in meetings, inferior salaries, and so on).
Centred, as it was, on the actions of elites, the role of women’s movements was eclipsed during South Africa’s transition to liberal democracy (Waylen 2004), to the extent that women were not able to contribute greatly to the multipartite discussions which preceded the 1992 apartheid referendum. In 1994, feminist movements nevertheless succeeded in persuading the ANC to adopt a Women’s Charter in the name of genuine equality. These groups continued striving to put gender equality on the agenda throughout the transfer to democracy in 1994, and during the 1995 World Conference on Women, in Beijing. This convergence of dates with major events prompted what seemed to be a global rush towards progress in matters of gender equality, backed by international organisations, such as the UN, and equally by international financial institutions, such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund; in this way, gender became institutionalised.
Despite a new international focus on gender issues, which consequently became a constant feature of political discourse, in reality real action was rarely taken. From this point, gender mainstreaming was pushed into the realm of rhetoric. Movements for gender equality were pushed into demanding rights, more than they were allowed to be the actors and thinkers of why these rights should exist. Here, gender had the latent role of validating the importance of women’s rights discourse – to the detriment of the political fight to make these rights effective.
Furthermore, for the government, superficial concerns with gender issues have become a useful way of concealing true intentions – indeed, South African policymakers are the same group of people who support African neo-traditionalism. This contradiction in aims would indicate that a stated determination to “mainstream gender” – in the legislative discourse – is in fact merely a popular rhetoric; patriarchy postponed under democracy. Ironically, with gender institutionalisation, gender issues are in fact depoliticised.
Between institutionalisation and radical actions: some contradictions
Governance at the local level
In South Africa and in Senegal, the gradual institutionalisation of gender issues over the past twenty years has had positive and negative consequences for those working to establish gender equality. On the one hand, it allows essential theoretical advances to be made, but on the other, reasserts counterproductive social boundaries. The development of gender studies in South Africa is a good example, as it combines conceptual innovation with subordination to economic and/or western institutions. Moreover, women’s organisations are hugely confronted by a normative, bureaucratic approach which encourages stasis and acts against social change. Furthermore, while the development of women’s associations as a movement has already been illustrated, the celebrity status attained by certain key figures in feminism diverts debate, as a focus on individuals undermines the role of collective movements. This tendency, underlined by the NGO-isation of these organisations and their emphasis on the Marxist heritage of the fight for independence, has led to the appearance of new feminisms. Islamic feminism, for example, does not in any way challenge the patriarchy, focusing instead on denouncing the westernization of the feminist fight.
These numerous and repetitive waves lead African feminism to reconsider its identity and methods of intervention. In Senegal, the more women create autonomous groups, in parallel with, yet removed from power systems, the more they distance themselves from decision making forums (Cisse 2008). Women’s organisations become autonomous based on the belief that this will allow them to be more effective, when paradoxically, this is not the case; their work feeds political rhetoric, but no action is taken; they support the government and receive nothing in return.
For its part, the feminist movement in South Africa is held back by the legacy of apartheid, the fight against segregation, which continues to shape thoughts about class and race, to the detriment of equality. The feminist movement thus aims to reinvent itself, picking holes in a very obviously patriarchal system, perfectly represented by the current president, Jacob Zuma. Also, while studies ‘dealing with the ambiguities and complexities of gender in South African culture’ (Frenkel 2008), may not be very visible – very little information is available online and research is often ongoing – these studies integrate issues of race, class, and gender relations in contemporary South African culture, as well as in representations of women and gender relations in South African literature, the reconstruction of feminist theory in the post-apartheid context, issues including gender, health and the role of the state. Still further topics which are brought in include representations of gender in the media, women and structural violence, gender in popular culture, historical forms of discrimination and their current manifestations, the interpretation of silences or lacunae in discourse about women, and also in the relationship between nationalism and gender politics. The amount of reworking being done reveals how much insight is needed in order to move beyond the paradoxes that exist in post-apartheid South Africa.
ICTs for gender, or gender in ICTs?
Today, in the age of the information society, it seems that the potential of ICTs to advance women’s movements dynamics is not yet being fully harnessed, to the point that these organisations are resistant to them (or display a surprising amount of conformism), as if technology existed outside current social, political and economic issues. The experiences of several women’s groups have raised questions and highlighted grey areas, which should be investigated, particularly in Senegal and South Africa. It seems that ICTs convey inequalities, depoliticise gender issues, and reduce women to the status of consumers. Women’s movements and feminist movements have very limited political awareness of the global and local impact of the information society, including as to how it relates to the work of their organisations. There is a dichotomy between the work of grassroots groups and research organisations working on gender issues and campaigns, and how they choose to communicate their work: to a national, rather than local, audience. The control that funders exercise within these organisations leads to women’s organisations being viewed as passive beneficiaries, which is not necessarily true. Finally, current ways of viewing and using ICTs are yet to be developed in order that ICTs be considered, not merely as tools, but as potential forms of resistance and subversion.
The stakes of gender inequality in ICTs
Numerous researchers have explored the Gender and ICTs movement, but the potential of ICTs to advance women at the political level has not yet been fully explored (Bayart & Toulabor 1991: 148-256). With the exception of the Régentic network in Senegal, groups working on gender and ICTs in Africa are more interested in their practical applications than their political potential. Indeed, while numerous studies and training programmed have been launched in the name of advocacy, these have focussed more on increasing women’s access to ICTs, and ICT skills, than on employing the Internet as a strategic tool. This approach bypasses the consideration of gender issues that exist within ICTs, and the strategies that should be used to fight inequalities brought about by the information society.
Banal sexist divides exist in the cyberspace just as in traditional media. Above all, though, the internet embodies a perfect model of the division between public and private spheres (Reagan 2002). Women’s movements seem to automatically exclude themselves from online discourse, citing a lack of time and financial resources, lack of experience, or, at worst, resignation. According to Fatimata Si, president of the Centre de Lutte contre les Violences faites aux Femmes, an organisation in Dakar that works to combat violence against women:
The internet is elitist, open only to intellectual women, women who already have a certain level of knowledge, and women who belong to associations which already have a degree of vision… […] Today, we, supporters of another fairer, more radical world, which is possible, we must have our own strategies and utilise ICTs in the fight we are leading. […] We are not using new information technologies as a strategic tool.
In today’s society, women could not afford to dismiss ICTs, as to do so feeds the patriarchal argument that, due to differences in biology, women are more suited to domestic life than the pursuit of science.
The internet as a marketing tool
When asked about visitors to their websites (if they have one), women’s organisations do not display an interest in what on the site is most read, nor, therefore, in their audience. They are not concerned about who reads the content they put online – if it is read at all, nor do they take an interest in categorising content according to their areas of interest. They are not aware of their sites’ peak visiting hours, how surfers use their sites, or how to increase traffic to their websites. These observations indicate that these organisations are not using their websites to represent their organisations for an exterior readership; rather, they are publishing for themselves.
Certain organisations, which understand the relationship between having a website and searching for funding, use their websites primarily to market the organisation. This, however, creates a bizarre gulf between the target audiences of these websites and the people who these organisations aim to help. These inconsistent communication strategies counteract transparency and good practice in these organisations.
Furthermore, these organisations have one-way relationships with the media; rather than distributing information themselves, communication almost always takes place through private media. At best, the internet is viewed as a form of media like any other; new, certainly, but nothing more. The responsibility for distributing news passes automatically into the hands of an intermediary. The new need for information management that ICTs have engendered is not viewed as contributing to gender inequality when, in fact, it is freely reproducing it.
In most cases, women’s organisations and movements are using ICTs as digital shop windows: distributing updates on their activities, some using mailing lists or text messages in order to communicate more widely, but never with any real strategy attached. In any case, the internet is not viewed as a form of communication for public use, a shared property that belongs to the population. In Africa, there is currently no concept of community, or citizen-led, communication, working to achieve social change and social justice. In terms of gender issues, the question that must be asked is less “what can ICTs do?”, and more “what is new about ICTs, what can they change and what can they politicise?” (Mottin & Palmieri 2009).
The funding paradox
It seems appropriate, at this point, to examine how and why women’s rights organisations have attempted to respond to the expectations of institutional and private funding providers (which are very often located in the Global North). For certain projects, it can be argued that funding from private and international organisations constitutes a cost-effective form of interventionism; a means through which these organisations can gain information about important local socio-political issues.
Paradoxically, however, without this financing, these projects could not exist. This paper thus ventures that, in order to maintain a political vision of the application of ICTs in the fight for gender equality, it is necessary to locate a pivotal point: between supply and demand; between autonomy and dependency; between the needs of the Global South and the needs of the Global North. In this line of investigation, we should ask whether the interests of local organisations – organisations, which, in the vast majority, express a need for visibility, and to a lesser extent, express a need to communicate with their counterpart organisations – collide with the interests of donors who try to weigh in with their own vision of development. If this is the case, we should examine where these conflicts of interest occur, and to what extent they are profitable, or counterproductive, for all parties concerned.
In addition to these questions, it is important to examine whether these organisations are faced with an ideological front; whether the organisations funding these initiatives view themselves as “civilising” the recipients, who are thought of as modern-day “savages”, as victims to be protected, saved or educated, and in no circumstances considered to be conscious, engaged members of local communities. This rhetoric of overprotection and victimisation highlights well-established divides, not just between the Global North, where funders are largely located, and the Global South, but also between the different actors working in specific environments or areas of intervention: the organisations, the funders and the recipients. This ‘hierarchy’ of actors consequently cannot work together transparently, and this is detrimental to democracy. This hierarchy also leads, as so often occurs in the Gender and ICT movement, to an universalist vision of the information society, as if cultural, generational and social issues were all global, independent from their environment, and able to be addressed by a single, top-down strategy.
Direct action, autonomy and knowledge in resistance
South Africa seems to be divided in how different organisations approach gender issues. Three main dichotomies exist: the first between government and civil society, and the second, as is often the case, between theory and practice. The third dichotomy, perhaps more extreme here than in many other countries, is a clear line between gender studies and feminism. Recent movements towards intersectionality, and practices based on knowledge in resistance – inside women’s memory – do not necessarily represent innovation.
In Senegal, women’s movements and feminists are clashing over subjects such as parity law and the Family Code, which will henceforth be addressed by the government. These groups are all grappling with mounting social, cultural and religious pressure, to which it becomes difficult to respond, given that these issues are so complex. Furthermore these groups are facing the gradual merging of the male-dominate sphere of politics with the sphere of social issues. Senegalese people continue to take to the streets over big issues such as violence and debt, which for women may stir up a kind of women’s memory. Some forms of activism remain to be explored, particularly regarding the modes of expression used by younger generations, including rap, but also blogging on gender. The examples given here primarily concern direct action at the grassroots level, they are in no way exhaustive, but are given here in order to illustrate some current trends.
Homophobic violence: evidence of a war-hungry masculine democracy
In South Africa, considering the confrontation between feminist and antifeminist mindsets, black lesbians occupy a particularly difficult space, trapped between two paradoxes: institutional recognition of their rights, and popular rejection of their existence. With the legal right to define their sexuality – unlike the majority of African women – and as a result of fights for rights which began as the democratic State was being created, black lesbians and their organisations force together the public and private spheres. As such, they denounce violence in all forms – not only sexual violence, but also racial, social, and generational. They are negotiating between two taboos: their sexuality, and the respect of the older generation who, in Africa, are widely viewed as responsible for defining the norms of social relations, and who are now confronted by modernity, which is democracy. In fact, this confrontation represents only one symptom of male resistance to feminist, or at the very least female, force for change.
Feminist resistance through free expression
In South Africa, during the past decade or so, a centre of resistance has formed in women’s memory. This has taken place less through recording the stories of individual women who lived through apartheid, as has been the case in commemorating the Rwandan Genocide, but rather, through advocating the non-academic knowledge of women in both urban and rural communities, with a focus on their private thoughts. While a more thorough analysis remains to be undertaken, from the observed cases it seems that initiatives that promote women’s speak – whether through audiovisual, written or online means – are focussing on questioning forms of domination, including knowledge-based power relations, with the aim of inverting relationships based on domination and subordination, and establishing a new approach to subject-object relations.
Considering a more established, literary space of free expression in Senegal, the journal Awa, first published in 1963, has shown that African literature continues to be a male-dominated sphere, and as a journal its very existence represents a real feminist struggle – it being a space for women to express, through literary means, their own opinions on their social role in society. The testimonies gathered in Awa are intended to be as personal as possible – particularly regarding feelings of guilt linked to breaking with tradition and family life.
Feminist rap: a new phenomenon
Hip hop is at the centre of culture for Senegal’s young population. NGOs and women’s organisations can see signs of a feminist revival in the lyrics of female hip hop artists. Female rappers are declaring themselves feminists and fighting for equal gender rights, for democracy and freedom in their country. They are denouncing injustice and fighting, loud and clear, against any who wish to hold them back. More generally, they want to create a distinctly feminist, African form of rap. Since the beginning of the 1990s, one group in particular, ALIF (Attaque libératoire de l’infantrie féministe) has consistently shown the difficulties experienced by female rappers when trying to gain acceptance from their more numerous male counterparts, and from producers, the majority of whom are also men (Goudet). Rather than stopping them, these obstacles have radicalised them. Their lyrics feature completely taboo subjects, such as the suicidal thoughts of a pregnant young girl who was raped by her father; jealous quarrels between wives in polygamous households; even death – witnessed up-close by a victim of FGM. Topics that are not discussed at home, or in newspapers, are now broadcast on the radio, or online.
Using the internet to explore gender issues
Between 2007 and 2009, the NGO ENDA Third World led a research project in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Senegal, with the core aim of creating channels of communication which would make gender issues more visible. Observing the use of ICTs by young people, who worked in local associations to combat FGM, the project showed that direct citizen action is possible, if it is inclusive, participatory and able to cross gender and generational divides. Through the project, the young people involved were introduced in a variety of ways to scholarly concepts including gender, citizenship, ICT, youth issues and FGM, and were encouraged to discuss these freely during regional and local meetings, in which fun, debate and active participation were central. Furthermore, the young people involved in the study were involved at the same level as the researchers in the evaluation of the research. This led the research team to creating self-teaching, self-evaluation, and teacher training tools, including teaching through drama, creating multimedia for the web (how to film using static and moving cameras, sound recording, writing and uploading content), interactive discussion (several mailing lists were set up so that everyone could communicate freely throughout different phases of the research), role-playing exercises and blogs. These approaches have had a cumulative effect: once each research project is complete, young people, still organised in their various communities, have continued to be active in their area – whether by, for example, participating in Burkina Faso’s “Internet Day”, which was at its core about gender inequality, or creating a blog about crosscutting approach in Mali.
Whether in South Africa or in Senegal, in the face of every form of domination (colonial then nationalist, against a backdrop of patriarchy, growing Islamic or traditionalist pressure, all in a liberalised market context) this article has shown how African women activists have learnt to adapt and create “multifaceted” forms of resistance (Coquery-Vidrovitch 1994). In South Africa, black lesbian movements have been radicalised in a context of patriarchal, white, heterosexual and Western symbols. As the targets of the most grievous crimes, these women risk paying a high price for showing that power structures can be challenged. If these radical feminist ideas are taking hold in South Africa, they can do so anywhere; their fight is our fight. Beyond radicalism, forms of gender activism continue to be diverse: some groups offer passive support to those in power; some demand rights without engaging in real political action, and allow themselves to be victimised; finally, others search for alternatives which invest in personal expression and memory. Whatever forms their work takes, African women are moving towards a definition of feminist citizenship, and using ICTs to make their work visible.
Joelle Palmieri, 2009 – Traduction, Alison Salt, septembre 2013
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