This paper argues that feminist perspectives on sexual violence and other human rights abuses committed against women contribute in significant ways to a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the lived realities of women.
The exploitation of women in an androcentric world that discriminates on the basis of gender, race and socio-economic realities is examined by applying Radical Marxist Feminist perspectives as well as gender based theories to explore the divisions of power and gender.
Women as the “second sex’ : an androcentric perspective
The French feminist writer, Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) writes about the perceptions of women, their role and significance in society. In her work,’The Second Sex (1949), she argues that:
“One is not born, but rather becomes a woman. No biological, psychological or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society;
it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine.” ( Simone de Beauvoir (1949) in Cohen p. 603)
Beauvoir’s analysis alludes to the idea that the feminine gender is not a biological variable, but a sociological construct, one in which the particular sociopolitical cultural context in which a woman finds herself determines her role, identity and significance in that particular society.
The question, therefore, of ‘what is a woman’ that Beauvoir poses has to be answered with reference to the categories of masculinity and femininity assigned by societies that may be influenced by values within androcentric or patriarchal structures.
Beauvoir posits that: ”all of us, men and women , whoever we are , should be considered as human beings.”.
The idea that women derive their identity and role in relation to the way men perceive them is inherent in Beauvoir’s writings.
“woman does not think herself without man . And she is nothing other than what man decides’ she is thus called ‘the sex’, meaning that the male sees her essentially as a sexed being for him she is sex, so she is in the absolute. He is the Subject; he is the Absolute. She is the Other.’ (Simone de Beauvoir (1949) in Cohen p. 605)
Feminist theory draws its inspiration from writers such as the existentialist French writer, Simone de Beauvoir, to recognize how gendered perspectives woven into and institutionalized within the socio-political fabric of societies color the way women are perceived.
Radical Feminism’s perspectives on the sexual exploitation on women
Dr. Lara Gerassi whose work centers on people at risk of sex-trafficking explains Feminist theory to be –
‘a broad, trans-disciplinary perspective that strives to understand roles, experiences, and values of individuals on the basis of gender’ (per Miriam, 2005 in Gerassi 2015).
Gerassi argues that with reference to sexual exploitation, ‘the feminist frame questions whether prostitution or any exchange of sex for something of financial value is or can be voluntary’ (Wilson & Butler, 2014).
In relation to whether sex work is a form of sexual exploitation , Gerassi notes that scholars and advocates are generally divided into two opposing theoretical camps.
The neo-abolitionists inclusive of Radical and Marxist feminists, , condemn all forms of voluntary and involuntary prostitution as a form of oppression against women;
They argue that prostitution is never entirely consensual and cannot be regarded as such (Tiefenbrun, 2002).
Sex positivists, however, argue that a woman has a right to choose prostitution and other forms of sex work as a form of employment or even as a career.
The emphasis of Radical feminism, however, is in the way it perceives societies to be structured – as ‘inherently’ patriarchal,(Gerassi,2015) with sexism serving to maintain male privilege and patriarchal social order (Loue, 2001 quoted in Gerassi 2015).
Dobash and Dobash (1979) explain the theoretical ideas underlying Radical Feminist theory’s focus on the oppression of women by androcentric societies :
‘violence against women is a systemic form of men’s domination and social control of women. Thus, assaults occur primarily because of institutionalized male privilege, as men believe it is their right to enact violence against women.’ ( Gerassi p. 81)
The exclusionary effect of the patriarchal organization of society on women
Gerassi notes that the patriarchal organization of both government and society has —
‘provided a social context for the widespread sexist acceptance of hierarchy, thereby excluding women from the public sector, higher education, structural labor forces, and religious institutions” (Loue, 2001; Dobash & Dobash, 1979 quoted in Gerassi p.81)
From this perspective, sexual commerce involves ‘a patriarchal right of access to women’s bodies’ and is depicted as a model of oppression, with the core idea of sexual commerce based on male domination and the structural inequalities between men and women.
In this way sexual commerce provides a patriarchal right of access to women’s bodies, thus perpetuating women’s subordination to men (Farley, 2005 in Gerassi p.81) .
Similar thinking is invoked by Radical feminists who oppose the use of pornography and its perceived harm and violence against women.
For instance, Gloria Steinem and presidents of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and Planned Parenthood sent a letter to President Clinton protesting the administration’s refusal to define all types of prostitution as “sexual exploitation” (Stolz, 2005 in Gerassi p.82)
Applying Radical Feminist thinking: The Relationship between gender and protection
Edwards asserts that that there is an absence of a ‘universally agreed binding treaty norm explicitly prohibiting violence against women.’ ( Edwards, p.3).
Notwithstanding the existence of the 1993 Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) by the UN General Assembly, the argument is that human rights norms underlying international law reflect the understanding of harms perpetrated against men rather than the experiences of women.
Women are therefore perceived as a ‘deviation from that standard and as an exception to that rule, rather than as equal beneficiaries of the human rights protection system.’ (Edwards, p.5).
This is remarkable since women continue to be the victims of violent atrocities and human rights abuses in countries such as Myanmar, Sudan , India and Nigeria.
Discrimination, for instance, against Palestinian women who were victims of sexual violence and rape in the West bank was evident in a law that allowed alleged rapists to avoid imprisonment if they married their victims.
This law in a 1960 penal code enforced in the West Bank has since been repealed by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. ( Human Rights Watch, May 10 , 2018).
A study in 2015 quoted by Human Rights Watch estimated that about half of all killings of women in Brazil are the result of domestic violence.(https://www.mapadaviolencia.org.br/pdf2015/MapaViolencia_2015_mulheres.pdf) ( Human Rights Watch August 16 , 2018) .
It is arguable that androcentric or patriarchal laws which determine the limitations to the autonomy and bodily integrity of women, and their rights, for instance, to marriage and property ownership exemplify the ‘logic of masculinist protection’ and ‘ the subordinate relation of those in the protected position.’ (Young, p.4).
From this perspective, laws that are depicted to be protective of women in promoting what appears to be in their ‘best interest’ may in reality further inequalities between the genders in way that serves the political, legal and economic interests of the ‘protectors.’
As Marion Young argues, ‘in return for male protection, the woman concedes critical distance from decision-making autonomy ‘ (Young , p.4). It is therefore necessary for there to be a reinterpretation of domestic and international laws on human rights to ‘include women’s experiences generally and of violence in particular.’ ( Edwards, p.3).
For instance, instead of presenting the statelessness of women as a ‘gender neutral phenomenon’ (Lee, p.115) that strips away the experiences of women, for example, of being exploited by human traffickers and denied protection to such threats by state officials, gender discrimination against women could be better addressed by migration law to account for such devastating harms .
Catherine Mackinnon’s criticisms of the sameness/difference model of equality is useful in arguing for migration law to identify and provide greater protection for gender related persecution involving, for instance, sexual violence such as rape and sexual slavery, rather than to ‘equate the experiences of women to harm normally perpetrated against men’ ( Edwards, p.5) .
The singling out of Rohingya women and children, some under the age of 10, for rape by the Tatmadaw Burmese soldiers highlights such gender related violence during conflicts (The Guardian 25 Oct. 2017) .
Additionally, The medical and psychological treatment provided by Médecins Sans Frontières for such victims of sexual atrocities would neccesarily differ from the kind of treatment provided to other victims in Cox’s Bazar.
This objectification and impersonalization of the feminine gender may not be as palpable as the way it is graphically depicted by Beauvoir in this era of modernity that advocates for an equality of rights among the genders. Yet the dehumanization of women is prevalent in States that violate human rights of individuals.
Consider the massacres and rapes of Rohingya women and children by the Burmese army post 2017; the singling out of villages of Yazidi women for abduction, rape and sexual slavery by Isis in Iraq post 2014.
It is indisputable that the ‘gendered nature’ of sexual violence and rape of an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 of mostly Bosnian Muslim women in Bosnia- Herzegovina by the Serb military in 1992 continues to traumatize the victims and their families to this day. (NewStatemanAmerica 2017).
Radical feminism and the gendered nature of violence against women
The gendered nature of violence experienced by women can be further perceived as an outcome of the domination and the unequal treatment of women by men in the social and political spheres of life. Radical feminist thinker, Catherine MacKinnon argues that:
‘the common failing of theories associating equality with equal treatment or with different treatment is that they implicitly accept a male yardstick: women are either the same as or different from a male norm.” ( MacKinnon (1987) in Chinkin 2016, p. 42)
Consider the protection afforded by international human rights treaties for the equal treatment of women. Artice 3 of the ICCPR provides that:
“States Parties…undertake to ensure the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all civil and political rights set forth in the present Covenant.”
Art 26 of the ICCPR further provides:
”All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. In this respect, the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, natural or social origin, property, birth or other status.”
It is arguable that the interpretation and implementation of such instruments of international law by State officials will, to a varying extent, be subject to preconceived, stereotypical biases against women held by such parties.
This may be the case if the domestic law of a State concerned, which is used as a ‘yardstick’ for interpreting international human rights treaties ‘keeps women out and down by preserving a hierarchical system based on gender and sex .’ ( MacKinnon (1987) in Chinkin 2016, p. 42)
To counter the effects of unequal treatment of women inherent in the law, MacKinnon posits the key question of ‘whether the policy or practice in question (underlying the relevant laws) contributes to the maintenance of a deprived position because of gender or sex’. (MacKinnon (1987) in Chinkin 2016, p. 43)
That is to say, would the legal protection against , for instance, the deprivation of liberty, and bodily integrity, the use of sexual and non-sexual forms of violence ordinarily- afforded to men- be undermined or even be absent because one is a woman?
Marxist Feminism’s perspectives on the oppression of women
Marxist feminism similarly adopts a neo-abolitionist stance that generally views all forms of sexual commerce as a form of violence against women.
Marxist feminists have argued that sexuality is to feminism what work is to Marxism, –that which is most one’s own and yet is taken away (MacKinnon, 1989 in Gerassi p,82)
Marxist feminism posits women’s oppression on the economic dependence on men in a male-centric society (Bryson, 1992) and argues that capitalism continues to be the overarching oppressor of women.
As long as capitalism exists, women will live in a patriarchal state and economically depend on men in a society structured around social class. ( Gerassi p.82)
The Marxist feminist model depicts economic exploitation of women in the form of sexual oppression in the form of prostitution and pornography, and therefore must be viewed as oppressions of sex and class.
From this perspective, women’s sexuality and sexual energy is appropriated by the men who buy or control the sexual services exchange (i.e., pimps) just as any worker’s energy is appropriated to the capitalists for their profits, –leading to alienation of one’s bodily capacities and very bodily being (Miriam, 2005 in Gerassi p.82)
Catherine MacKinnon, a Marxist feminist legal scholar, argues that all forms of pornography, prostitution, and sex trafficking are abuses of sex and—a form of power taken away from women (MacKinnon, 1982 in Gerassi p.82)
The Insidious effects of sexism
I was especially intrigued by Charlotte Bunch’s argument that ‘sexism kills’. Empirical evidence does seem to suggest that women are discriminated against not only on the basis of their membership of a particular ethnic group, race, class, or political persuasion but also because of their gender.
I would support Bunch’s observation that there is ‘increasing documentation of the many ways in which being female is life threatening.’ Survivors of the massacres of villages in the Rakhine state in Myanmar recounted to journalists of the New York Times of girls being singled out by the military and being gang raped ( NYT, Oct 12, 2017) .
Prior to the ruling of the Indian Supreme court on the illegality of sex with child brides, generations of female children were given in marriage to men who relied on the Indian legal code that stated that ‘a man could have sex with a girl as young as 15, as long as she was his wife.’ (NYT, Oct 11, 2017).
It is arguable that these and other examples of oppression of women highlight the violation of a number of rights of women as ‘political prisoners, members of persecuted ethnic groups’ ( Bunch) as well as the violation of their rights to bodily integrity and life as evidenced by gender related sexual abuse.
What exactly is the nature of the correlation between the violation of rights of women, for instance, to life, bodily integrity, freedom against slavery in the form of human trafficking , education, employment, and the female gender which certain feminist socialist theorists such as Messerschmidt argue is a social construction involving the way in which men and women perceive their masculinities and femininities mediated by power relations between the genders, the socio-cultural ideologies underpinning class, race and even patriarchy.
In societies like those of India, child marriage is not uncommon especially since the payment of dowries to fathers of female brides is still part of the custom practised in some villages. Practices such as child marriage are perceived by some lawmakers as inevitable since they provide financial assistance to the poorer rural families and provide a degree of protection for vulnerable women and children.
Coomaraswamy ( writing in ‘Human Rights of Women, Cook) discusses the prevalence of similar paternalistic attitudes underlying the Sri Lankan constitution’s non discriminatory clause that groups women together with children and disabled persons. She asserts that ‘in this paternalistic project , women along with children and the mentally disabled are denied agency .’
One gets the sense that the needs, aspirations and rights of women are determined by some societies against the backdrop of preconceived perceptions influenced by the historical, political and socio-cultural make-up of these societies. In this context ,
one wonders how the human rights of future generations of women in relation to issues for instance on bodily integrity, poverty , education, marriage will be expanded and protected.
I am inclined to support Prof Fredman’s view that ‘giving rights to current generations can enhance and facilitate the rights of future generations’.
There however need to be a prioritization of women’s rights as human rights and the allocation of the necessary resources for such an endeavour through changes to socio- cultural attitudes , state policies and laws in ‘reconceiving the needs and hopes’ of the human rights of current and future generations (Bunch).
Ensuring that duty bearers of a state recognise and uphold the rights of women not to be subject to violence within marriage or to be protected against sexual slavery and human trafficking for instance by introducing laws that criminalize marital rape and sexual exploitation will safeguard future generations of women from violence within marriage.
The reality is , that nation states like Singapore have only recently (2020) recognised marital rape as an offence although Singapore had previously introduced the Prevention of Trafficking Act 2014 to deal with the sexual exploitation of women and children.
Criticisms of Radical and Marxist feminism
Both radical and Marxist feminism have been criticized for their focus on sexually exploited or trafficked victims and the lack of women’s rights to choose careers in sex work (Kesler, 2002; Wolken, 2004 in Gerassi p.82) ).
In addition, arguments have ironically been regarded as paternalistic, in that the abolishment of prostitution is viewed as for the good of prostitutes (Meyers, 2013 in Gerassi p.82) ).
Critics argue that categorizing everyone as victims of sex trafficking (or not) creates an unhelpful dichotomy within the law and social services of looking for victims that are always under some form of force, fraud, or coercion and therefore under the control of another (FitzGerald & Munro, 2012; Snyder-Hall, 2010 in Gerassi p.82)
Finally, some critics have argued that capitalism is a current reality, especially in countries like the U.S., and Marxist feminism loses the ability to view gender, sexuality, and class together within current day society (Beloso, 2012).
In response to many of these criticisms, a new feminist framework arguing for women’s right to choose sex work has emerged, adding to an entrenched debate of feminism, choice, and freedom ( Gerassi p.83)
The neutrality of law as a viewpoint of power -Katherine MacKinnon:
The Radical and Marxist Feminist themes explored in this paper on the oppression and marginalization of women in paternalistic, capitalistic societies is further articulated in Katherine MacKinnon’s seminal work, A theory of social order and role of sexual violence;
MacKinnon’s explores the themes of dominance and power inherent within the social and legal structures of society, situating women’s struggles in ‘a grand theory of social order and the role of sex/sexual violence/rape’. She argues:
‘instead of asking, what is the violation of rape, what if we ask, what is the non-violation of intercourse? the wrong of rape has proven so difficult to articulate because—
the unquestionable starting point has been that rape is definable as distinct from intercourse, when for women it is difficult to distinguish them under conditions of male dominance’ ( MacKinnon, Catherine, pp.133 and 114)
Mackinnon explores the way in which the construction of sexual difference to acts work against the interest of women’s :
‘when law is most neutral and objective, it is most male, speaking from the viewpoint of POWER’. The law is most male [patriarchal] when it is at the height of its aperspectivity – or allegedly most neutral’…(MacKinnon, Catherine, pp.133 and 114)
Thus, from MacKinnon’s point of view, the laws proscribing rape and other forms of sexual violence against women are never neutral and just, although they are portrayed as such; they are colored by male dominated, policy based convictions on issues ranging from abortion and prostitution, to rape and sexual violence, often committed by men against women.
MacKinnon argues that ‘Male dominance is perhaps the most pervasive and tenacious system of power in history, … it is metaphysically nearly perfect.’ (MacKinnon, Catherine, pp.133 and 114)
Such a generalization and universalization of male centric views on the treatment of women finds expression in the institutionalization of such laws by State legislatures; laws that perceive women through the androcentric lens of men in political power…..
The imagery of the Law as a polished mirror, reflecting male interests, values, convictions and control over every aspect of women’s lives is evinced in MacKinnon’s work. She argues:
”I propose that the state is male in the feminist sense.’The law sees and treats women –the way men see and treat women.
The liberal state coercively and authoritatively constitutes the social order in the interest of men as a gender, —through its legitimizing norms, relation to society, and substantive policies.
It achieves this through embodying and ensuring male control over women’s sexuality at every level, –occasionally cushioning, qualifying, or de jure prohibiting its excesses when necessary to its normalization.
Substantively, the way the male point of view frames an experience is the way it is framed by state policy.”
The logics of male centric thinking underpinning the rationale of sexual intercourse, rape and the limited extent to which pornography and prostitution is prohibited by the Law is further questioned by Mackinnon:
”To the extent possession is the point of sex, rape is sex with a woman who is not yours, unless the act is so as to make her yours.
If part of the kick of pornography involves eroticizing the putatively prohibited, obscenity law will putatively prohibit pornography enough to maintain its desirability without ever making it unavailable or truly illegitimate.
The same with prostitution. ( Catharine A. MacKinnon, (1983) ‘Feminism, Marxism, Method, and the State: Toward Feminist Jurisprudence’, Signs, 8:4 , pp. 635-658)
Thus, regardless of whether an abortion is sought by a woman because of rape, incest or severe fetal abnormalities, El Salvador in 1998 criminalized abortion under any circumstances. For instance, Teodora del Carmen Vásquez was sentenced to 30 years in prison for “aggravated homicide” after suffering a still-birth at work. (Amnesty International 2020)
Such laws on abortion in countries such as El Salvador disproportionately target younger women of lower socio-economic class, who themselves may be victims of rape and sexual violence.
What counts as a crime or a victim of crime lies within the privileged domain of male policy makers, the architects of reproductive laws.
In 2019, Alabama’s Republican State Senate enacted a near total ban on abortion without allowing exceptions for rape and incest, criminalizing such procedures at any stage of pregnancy.
The irony is that all 25 Republican Senators who voted to ban abortion in Alabama are all white men….
The yardstick for assessing the reproductive rights and bodily integrity of women is underpinned by a self- serving male ethos as exemplified in MacKinnon’s writings:
‘‘As male is the implicit reference for human, maleness will be the measure of equality in sex discrimination law.
To the extent that the point of abortion is to control the reproductive sequelae of intercourse, so as to facilitate male sexual access to women, access to abortion will be controlled by “a man or The Man.
”Gender, elaborated and sustained by behavioral patterns of application and administration, is maintained as a division of power..”
Catharine A. MacKinnon, (1983) ‘Feminism, Marxism, Method, and the State: Toward Feminist Jurisprudence’, Signs, 8:4 , pp. 635-658)
MacKinnon’s feminist view of rape is one which draws from the lived experiences of rape victims and survivors;
one in which ‘victims see the rape in intercourse’ rather than ‘the intercourse in rape’ as perceived by the legal system. (Catharine A. MacKinnon, (1983) pp. 635-658)
As MacKinnon argues:
Rape is not less sexual for being violent; to the extent that coercion has become integral to male sexuality, rape may be sexual to the degree that, and because, it is violent.
Catharine A. MacKinnon, (1983) ‘Feminism, Marxism, Method, and the State: Toward Feminist Jurisprudence’, Signs, 8:4 , pp. 635-658)
From this perspective, Male centric laws on rape fail to distinguish between sexuality and violence in defining rape; the idea that there may be rape even in the absence of violence perpetrated by man against a woman .
Why then do societal and legal definitions of rape continue to infer rape from violence or equate the two?
MacKinnon explains that:
The point of defining rape as “violence not sex” or “violence against women” –has been to separate sexuality from gender in order to affirm sex (heterosexuality) while rejecting violence (rape).
The problem remains what it has always been: telling the difference.
The convergence of sexuality with violence, long used at law to deny the reality of women’s violation, –The uncoerced context for sexual expression becomes as elusive as the physical acts come to feel indistinguishable.
(Catharine A. MacKinnon, (1983) ‘Feminism, Marxism, Method, and the State: Toward Feminist Jurisprudence’, Signs, 8:4 , pp. 635-658)
Perceiving Gender as a Social Construct
One key feature of feminist contribution to criminology is the push to recognise gender as a social construct and not simply as a statistical variable.
Whilst early feminist work focused on the need to incorporate women in all areas of criminological debate, later work introduced a more critical consideration of the concept of gender ( Daly 1997; Walklate 2004).
Feminist criminologists have encouraged theorizations of gender , gender differences , gender relations ,gender order and the meaning of gender as a subjective lived experience rather than merely an ascription, within a context of power relations and patriarchy.
Heidensohn adds that the need for a ‘gender conscious’, ‘feminist’ visible, and strategic leadership has been identified as pivotal in driving forward successful reform agendas ( Silvestri 2003) .
Referred to as ‘femocrats’ ( Sawer 1995) such individuals are concerned with putting women’s concerns centre stage on both policy and governmental agenda .
Gendering the criminal (Sandra Walklate)
Gender studies on crime arguably lend greater credence to feminist explanations of crime- not only in explaining the ways in which men construct their sense of masculinities, but ways in which such expressions of masculinities oppress women in society.
Walklate states that what is particularly striking about both the theoretical work of Messerschmidt (1986) and Carlen’s work on female offenders and women in prison is the way in which –
both writers have drawn on conceptual formulations that take us outside mainstream criminological debates in order to understand the nature of criminality. (Walklate 2007)
It could be argued that the issue of gender has remained implicit to criminology rather than explicitly explored by it.
Hagan and McCarthy (2000) state that: we also assumed that gender would play a more important role than it did.
Messerschmidt (1993) for instance explains the way in which expression of masculinities –constitutes a continuous thread in criminal behavior.
He proposes one way of thinking about how gender is accomplished in the context of criminal behavior.
This analysis attempts to identify the way in which expression of masculinities –constitutes a continuous thread in criminal behavior, —
from the use of violence in the street to involvement in white-collar crime. (Walklate 2007)
Messerschmidt (1993) -conditions under which gender identities are constructed
He suggest that there are three specific social structures underpinning gender relations from which such a continuity can be derived;
the gender divisions of labor,
the gender relations of power
To Messerschmidt, none of these is a constant entity. Their specific form varies through time and space but, taken together, they define the conditions under which gender identities are constructed.
In other words, these structures define the conditions under which expressions of masculinity and femininity are constructed. Connell (1987) has coined this as ‘hegemonic masculinity’.
Jefferson (2006) defines ‘hegemonic masculinity’ in the following way:
- ‘the set of ideas , values , representations and practices associated with ‘being male’
- which is commonly accepted as the dominant position in gender relations in a society at a particular historical moment’ .
Walklate states that Messershmidt (1993) offers one of the most thoroughgoing descriptive accounts of the relationship between masculinities and crime. (Walklate 2007)
‘Research’ according to Messerschmidt (1993) reveals that men construct masculinities in accord with –their position in social structures and therefore their access to power and resources.
This leads him to analyze a variety of social contexts in which differential access to power and resources produces differently emphasized constructions of masculinity.
How do differential access to power and resources produces differently emphasized constructions of masculinity?
In the context of crime, this results in the consideration of three key locations:
- the street ,
- the workplace and
- the home.
In each of these locations , Messershmidt provides a detailed account of the variety of ways in which masculinity is expressed –
such as the pimp on the street , the sharp business practice of the rising white collar executive and various kinds of violence in the home.
To Messershmidt, all these accounts are offered as a means of demonstrating the ways in which men display their manliness to others and to themselves . (Walklate 2007)
So while the business executive might use his position and power to sexually harass his female secretary in perhaps more subtle ways than the pimp controls his women, the effects are the same.
In this particular example, the women concerned are subjugated and the men concerned are affirmed as normatively heterosexual men. ( Walklate 2007).
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