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Post 344.

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Ziya’s class recently concluded a class president election. In the run-up, she practiced her speech, highlighting qualities of kindness and loyalty, and roles such listening, helping, resolving conflicts, and encouraging good behaviour.

I was pleased that she felt confident enough to consider being elected and that her teacher had enthused such a sense of possibility among the students. Many children in the class offered themselves as candidates. It seemed like an excellent lesson in democracy.

“The boys only voted for boys,” Zi later huffed. Why did this matter? From her description, the girls seem to have mostly voted for each other or for themselves. ‘Did a boy give the best speech?’ I asked, but she was noncommittal.

Turns out that there are more boys than girls in the class, and the other girls had eventually concluded their speeches didn’t matter as the boys were never going to vote for a girl. This meant that the girls would never get to be president, and why run if you can’t win?

Why did she think the boys wouldn’t vote for girls? “The boys don’t think girls exist”, she said. As decades of efforts to create gender equality attest, when searching for nominees to appoint to private sector and state boards, an argument is often made that enough qualified women can’t be found.

In the early 2000s, when state boards and companies on the stock exchange couldn’t find women to nominate, the Network of NGOs of Trinidad and Tobago for the Advancement of Women found 200 qualified women. Women’s representation went up to 29% that year.  The global numbers tell us that girls remain invisible to boys, in both corporate and political leadership, in the adult world today.

Her second explanation was that “the boys only vote for their friends, and all their friends are the other boys”. She was describing the budding version of the resilient, powerful and informal influence of an ‘old boys’ network’.

There’s significant data on the mentoring and deal-making that occurs on golf courses, football fields and bars or in lodges, where familiarities and friendships among men develop outside of formal spheres. We may all turn to our networks first, nurturing them with respect and reciprocity as part of strengthening their ties, their reach and our place in them.

When those networks also intersect with power over decision-making, and the lower status and greater invisibility of those outside, they are a formula for exclusion. Those in these networks don’t have to be personally bad, and the exclusion doesn’t have to be deliberate. Nonetheless, the outcome is no longer innocent.

Zi’s third explanation was that “the boys think they are smarter than the girls”. Think of how worried society becomes when girls “outperform” boys at SEA, but how the nation celebrates when a boy finally “tops” girls, as if stopping reversal of the natural order from going too far. Think of how women in Obama’s administration had to amplify each other for their ideas to even be heard. Imagine, long-held biases about lesser female competency are still clear enough for her to articulate.

Boys’ implicit gender bias plus social networks plus majority vote created unequal opportunity. I told Zi to talk to her teacher. She couldn’t let an unfair system become entrenched, even if she was afraid of getting in trouble for “complaining”. I told her about quota systems, and that for every boy or girl class president, there could be an alternative vice-president, and that there should be alternating class presidents so girls would have an equal chance.

I gave her everything I got, from Audrey Jeffers to the Suffragettes. Eventually, she ran to her room and came back with a poster titled, THE Election REBELLION. Over her title, she wrote, ‘Vote = Voice of the Electorate”, a reference to nineteen years earlier when Svenn Miki Grant and I handed out a thousand copies of a youth manifesto at a public launch on the promenade. Below she wrote, “the choice is yours to vote for girls”. And, in huge and colourful letters, between a heart and a star, was the message: “THE GIRLS WANT VOTES”.

Next morning, she took her poster to school and went to rouse her friends. Her teacher held a girls’ meeting at lunch and they represented their sense of unfairness. She then met with the whole class so all the children could recognise that being in the voting minority meant it would always be an uphill battle for the girls to secure power through democratic means.

By the end of day, Zi reported the rebellion to be over. Yet, was the electoral system really changed? Zi wasn’t sure what new rules they had secured. She hadn’t confirmed whether there would now be alternating leadership. Until she’s sure and it’s enacted, the struggle continues.

What’s clear is that the unjust political realities of adult women are already reflected in the eyes of eight year old girls. We have a responsibility to address unfair male domination at all ages, levels of power and processes of decision-making. An election rebellion is long overdue. The girls deserve votes.

 

Post 337.

As a child, the white handkerchief in the right back pocket of my dad’s pants would dry my tears. Collecting his belongings, after he unexpectedly died of a heart attack on Thursday in St. Vincent, in a pair of his pants folded on a shelf, I found his handkerchief, soft and familiar.

I slid it into my own right back pocket, his habit giving me comfort and connection. At the morgue, I stood bewildered, clutching that small cotton square, willing his eyes to open, contemplating the hard metaphysics that we can be here and not here at the same time.

I said all the things one says, it’s okay, I forgive you, I forgive myself, I’m sorry some people hurt you, I’m so glad some people treated you well, I wish you peace, I thank you, I love you. When I couldn’t think in words anymore, I stroked his hair and his head, breathing for us both, breathing, breathing.

My dad, Azad Nazar Hosein (February 9, 1943 – June 6, 2019) was brilliant. He was devastatingly logical, had an absorbed and dominating mind, and could sharply envision both a far end and each step in between. He opened the first computer school in the country, called ComTech, and I distinctly remember him teaching students to code, standing at a wooden podium with a gold plaque printed with the word, “Think”.

For decades, he worked with governments on strategic planning and project management like a guru in the field. He was a workaholic, committed to the region, his students, preventing fiscal mis-management, and empowering civil servants with whom he collaborated.

He was also difficult and unpredictable, and for a long time I struggled. I learned forgiveness and compassion from loving him as I grew older, but I also learned how to protect my boundaries, how I wanted to be loved, and what it means to both be a survivor and be who I am because of his strengths. Fathers are not always easy.

Stroking his hair, time fell away, and I was no longer the adult intimate with his gifts and failings. The more his cold body became real, the more insubstantial I felt, like I was dissipating into a ghost of myself at five or six years old, crumpling his handkerchief and drying my tears. I had not stroked his hair so gently like that for nearly forty years, with the entirety of a child’s adoration and affection. It was visceral and mutual, he adored me then too.

I saw him on Monday in a chance encounter in the Tobago airport. He was fasting for Ramadan and had just swum in the ocean. He looked tall, confident and well for his seventy-six years. We spent time discussing procurement and corruption. He started the conversation by saying he hadn’t seen me write in the newspaper about the new US laws against abortion, and launched into a short speech about how he strongly believed in a woman’s right to choose.

How did he manage to believe that his work with Caribbean governments would change how we strategise, implement and evaluate when it had not as yet? He said, you have to have eternal optimism that things will improve in the region. I looked at him, smiling to myself, so clearly the child of my parents’ politics and commitments, features and mannerisms.

Working at UWI reminds me of my dad, who also once lectured there. I think of him striding long-legged across the field to the mainframe computers on campus, with boxes of punch cards in his arms, while I ran alongside to keep up at six or seven years old. I think of him helping me learn to ride my bicycle on Dash Street, opposite UWI school, where I climbed trees in the lush backyards of campus housing. I think of him calling me ‘sugarplum’ when I would leap into his arms and touch his hair.

Before he boarded the plane on Monday, he retold the story of his happiness on the day I was born. I was the girl he wanted. Now I think I should have taken a picture of us, should have hugged him longer, but all I have is that he kissed me on the cheek and I saw him smile for the last time. He was not perfect, but he was mine.

In the morgue on Friday morning, the pathologist came out with my dad’s heart covered in a bowl in his hand. While he explained the autopsy results, I kept looking at his wrapped heart. This was the heart beating in his body on Monday. This was the heart I wanted to love me. Here for the last time was his heart. Now, there would be only memory and acceptance. No more chances to make anything right.

I was four years old when I stood next to my dad at his mother’s funeral, his handkerchief on his head while he prayed. For the first time I will be there again, on Thursday, his handkerchief drying my tears as he is laid to rest in his mother’s grave.

 

Post 318.

On Sunday, Colin Robinson kicked off critiques of ‘good men’ campaigns. People might think activists are being difficult. Surely this is what women wanted all along.

Actually, things are as complex as critiques make them seem. ‘Good men’ campaigns are a recent invention. In the 1990s when organisations such as Men Against Violence Against Women (MAVAW) were founded, and were profeminist and allied with struggles of the women’s movement, no one was talking about good men.

Both women and men involved were still trying to get the public to see men’s power over women as harmful, and were squarely appealing to men to disassociate love from licks. The men’s movement acknowledged male violence against women and men’s role in ending it. In today’s opposite world, MAWAW circulates videos lauding men “destroying feminism”, and participates in male-only chat groups that malign women who suggest that doesn’t feel like solidarity.

In the decades between the 1990s and now, the ‘good men’ campaign grew as International Men’s Day became a day, not for growing men’s contribution to ending patriarchal gender ideals as they harm both women and men, but for praising men, giving them more platform and visibility, emphasising all men (not just those poor, HIV positive, disabled or gay) as marginalized, and pressing for women and feminists to meet male needs with greater priority.

We’ve seen the surreal shift to women organising fora in which only men are speakers, and radio programmes, such as on I95 on Sunday, when a male host thought it good to have only men speak about gender issues (as if experts), in the process promoting significant misinformation about gendered power relations, nature and nurture debates, and Caribbean feminist visions for women and men in our region.

Turn the whole world upside down, sang 3 Canal.

Robinson argued against ‘good men’ sloganeering because men are not good. Rather, like women, like all human beings, men have capacity for good and bad. In his words, “men owning our violence and our capacity for it is critical to change…Until we create spaces where guys can be honest about not being “good” men, men aren’t likely to do the hard work of exploring other options”.

There’s domineering joy in telling women on their way to work what you think about their bodies, knowing you would find men doing that to you both unwanted and threatening. There’s also pain and vulnerability in admitting that violence is how you control your woman because that’s what you’ve learned, and becoming the man you didn’t want to be is killing you at the same time as you risk killing her.

Peter Weller and I didn’t debate whether we “change men’s behaviour or we change the culture, systems and ideology that legitimate toxic masculinity”. Behaviour change is a strategy. The feminist revolution is more radical, conceptual and far-reaching. It includes changing the violence associated with power, opening up our very definitions of manhood and womanhood, shifting laws, policies, notions of ‘work’, and deconstructing fundamental assumptions of Western philosophy and the plantation-economy.

These legitimate goals have decades of scholarship and activism behind them and can’t be flattened simplistically into soundbites. I’m always wonderous about good men who come into a movement that they acknowledge they don’t fully understand, and may not fully support, and then seek to contain its goals. Good men should meet feminist analyses where they are, rather than women making their dreams smaller so no one gets angry.

Back to ‘good men’.

This branding mobilises the stereotype that feminists think “all men are bad”. Feminists don’t say men are bad. They call on men to be accountable for their views, behaviours and choices, and fight against masculine ideals that reproduce them as normal, natural and unchangeable.

Second, it excuses ‘good men’ from confronting male privilege as real, as institutionalized, as global, and as benefiting even good men. It’s like talking about the need to transform patriarchal power to someone who responds that your argument doesn’t have validity because he’s not bad.

Being a good guy is necessary. Being a good human is better. Supporting the feminist struggle to end sexism and homophobia, and to value us all because we are good humans, not because we meet gender ideals, is best of all.

Finally, if good men stop others from being sexist, violent, homophobic, unemotional or uncompassionate, what do good women do? By that logic, good women become feminists. Good men too.

If this becomes the conversation, it’s a transformation we’ve been dreaming of all along. Good women and men, it’s time to turn the whole unjust world upside down.

 

Post 228.

Almost forty years ago, Audre Lorde wrote, “we can sit in our safe corners as mute as bottles, and still we will be no less afraid”. Around the region today, women are posting sexual harassment, abuse and assault survival stories as part of the #lifeinleggings movement, precisely to overcome that silencing and fear.

The hashtag and postings were started by Barbadian women Ronelle King and Allyson Benn to highlight the pervasiveness of sexual violence. Can any of us say that we don’t know one woman who has experienced such threat, fear, harm and denial of choice, possibly many times?

They linked their initiative to Barbados’ 50th independence and, therefore, to the impossibility of ‘development’ without also ending gender inequalities. Caribbean states have paid scant attention to the realities of rape culture while reframing twenty years of lip service into a story of “too much focus on women”. Yet, the courage it takes to share these stories suggests that silencing remains more dominant than safe space for women’s truths about their relationships, families, communities and nation.

Breaking these silences remains a risk. Families are invested in hiding stories of sexual predation, telling women that it happened in the past or that it’s more important to just keep peace. People respond that, somehow, you must have looked for that because of your clothes, your job or smile. Others’ trauma at hearing what happened to you has to be managed, sometimes making it easier to say nothing. It’s common to not be believed or to be blamed or seen as bringing down shame or wanting attention or, worse, as a joke.

Now isn’t the time to say not all men rape, assault or harass. Women are not accusing all men, they are simply no longer hiding what actually happened to them. Women are not responsible for protecting themselves, for ‘men don’t molest decent girls’. These stories begin when we are children and modesty provides no safety. Women don’t want men’s protection, we want their solidarity. There’s one message that can change women’s #lifeinleggings, and that is that men’s sexual self-responsibility has no excuses.

From Bajan politicians to Guyanese indigenous women to Jamaican reggae singers to Trinidadian university educators to policewomen in St. Vincent to disabled girls across the region, every kind of Caribbean woman has stories. Imagine what it means when education, class privilege, fame, age, ethnicity or profession makes no difference?

Audre Lorde has written, “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you”. Almost forty years later, in support of #lifeinleggings, Tonya Haynes, in the Caribbean feminist blog, Code Red for Gender Justice, wrote,

“Women broke every silence. We spoke of street harassment: girl, yuh pussy fat! Principals who made no room for comprehensive sexuality education but slut-shamed girls who were themselves sexually abused. Rape by current and former partners. Years of sexual abuse by fathers, step-fathers, uncles, cousins. Stories of men who told us that they’re waiting for our four-year-old daughters to grow up. Men who offered jobs or rides or food or protection only to demand sex. Only to split our bodies open when we refused. Men who raped us because we are lesbian, because we are women, because we are girls, because they could. We exploded every myth about how good girls and good women are protected from this violence. That good men will protect us.  That all we have to do is call in our squad of brothers and uncles and fathers. We asked, and who will women and girls call when our fathers and brothers and uncles assault them? We affirmed that asking men to protect us from male violence is not freedom. All men benefit from male privilege and unequal relations of gender which disadvantage and devalue women and girls. We demand autonomy not protection! We split this island open for every woman and girl who has had her body split open. We split this island open and let all the secrets fall out”.

If you want to break your own silences, there is a #lifeinleggings gathering, on Saturday from 4-6pm, at the Big Black Box on Murray Street in Woodbrook. Go. Listen. Share. Let all our own islands’ secrets fall out.

Post 227.

A bill now before Cabinet proposes to raise the age of marriage for girls to eighteen years old. This is because the Children’s Act (2012) defines girls under this age as children, for whom marriage and motherhood constitute a violation of rights.

There will be brouhaha about this bill, but it follows a necessary global trend and, while imperfect, is worth supporting.

Some will say that marriage of minors is culturally or religiously sanctioned. Others will argue that the age of marriage and sexual consent should be set at sixteen years old, not eighteen, and that this is necessary to counter the sin and shame of unwed sex and motherhood.

The fact is the laws need to change. The civil marriage act specifies no minimum marriageable age. The Hindu Marriage Act, and Muslim Marriage and Divorce Acts, contain discriminatory provisions which enable marriage of girls at much younger ages than boys, reproducing a patriarchal view that girls do not need as much time for development of their independence and maturity before marriage.

But, there is more at stake. Child marriage is only one example of adult predatory masculinity, which can also be seen in girls’ rates of pregnancy, abortion, sexual abuse and incest, and HIV.

There have been small numbers of girls married at twelve, thirteen and fourteen as late as 2015. Seventeen 13 year-old girls were married in 2010 along with nine 14 year-olds. Between 2011 and today, twenty-one fourteen year-old girls were married. Overwhelmingly, of the 548 child marriages that took place between 2006 and 2016, the majority of those girls were married to adult men.

These are not relationships between equally adolescent minors. These are examples of relationships in which girls’ unequal age, power, and negotiating capacity are normalized. Were the situation to be reversed, where in one year twenty-six boys under 14 years old were married to mainly adult women, this would be appear to all as a theft of childhood, and molestation.

The symbolic significance of marriage blurs our understanding of child marriage rates as only one indicator of girls’ wider sexual vulnerability.

Turn to teenage pregnancy: Between 2008 and 2015, there were 35 pregnancies to girls twelve years old or younger, 2645 to girls between thirteen and sixteen years old, and 12 551 to girls seventeen to nineteen years old. “In these statistics, said the AG, “We have recorded the actual live births of thousands of children in circumstances potentially equal to statutory rape”.

In terms of sexual offense charges, between 2000 and 2015, there were 2 258 matters in relation to girls compared to two charges for sex with males under sixteen years old. As of July 2015, there were 559 cases related to sexual intercourse with a female under the age 14 years, 128 related to sexual intercourse with a person over 14 years and under 16 years without consent, and 45 related to sexual intercourse with a dependent minor. It is well documented that girls’ sexual vulnerability to adult men vastly increases between ten and fourteen years old, the very age around which child marriage debate pivots.

With regard to abortions recorded by public hospitals, between 2011 and 2015, there were 67 among girls thirteen to sixteen years old and 683 among those seventeen to nineteen years old. Finally, the HIV statistics are telling as girls 15-24 years old have almost always had higher rates than boys of their age. In 2014, girls accounted for 60% of infections among 15 to 19 year olds.

We need further research on these numbers and their meanings as well as on the prevalence and implications of adult men’s informal unions with girl children. Nonetheless, the overall trends are totally clear.

In a context where there is no national sexual and reproductive health policy, and no comprehensive sexual education in schools, girl children are overwhelmingly being targeted by men and boys older than them, in ways that impact their empowerment, self-determination, reproductive health, and right to live free from harm.

We must ask which is more important: protection of patriarchal ideologies, symbolic ethnic and religious laws, respectability politics and predatory masculinities or public will that presses political will to provide protections that girls urgently need.

Post 231.

In 1492, the current world order was established. The Caribbean was ground zero. Dispossession of indigenous peoples was the first founding act. Today, we in Trinidad all live on occupied land.

Across the Americas, indigenous sovereign nations, still living under (post)colonial rule, continue to challenge and refuse a global political economy built on invasion, decimation and extraction.

Indigenous people didn’t become extinct. They don’t belong to a time past, and their systems of governance, economic management and ecology are not quaint or outdated.

Indeed, indigenous communities across the Americas are at the forefront of waging struggles against corporate capitalism’s state-managed privatization of water and destruction of forests, precisely because they have kept alternatives alive all these centuries.

As you read, remember Indigenous Honduran environmental activist Berta Caceres, assassinated just this year for her defiance to mining and logging concessions and proposed dams.

Movements such as the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, now more than thirty years strong, offer real, living examples of dignity, autonomy and justice in which we can all find new forms of order, labour and exchange.

Given that indigenous people are still here, their claims to repatriation of land remain as valid in 2016 as they did in 1493. For them, colonization isn’t an event that happened, it’s a structure that organizes their lives today, as it does ours. Let us not feign innocence about our own entanglement in the continued disruption that occurs in indigenous people’s lives from the violation and violence of such occupation.

What does this mean for Africans, Indians and others in the Caribbean, who, by force and suffering, had to establish our belonging over time by coming to see ourselves as ‘indigenous’ to this region? How do our claims currently and wrongly displace Indigenous people themselves? How does our affirmation of our humanity maintain an imperial legacy?

This is an even more important question for those of us involved in social justice work. For, our legal and cultural investments in UN rights conventions, nation-state law, and democratization of land ownership (such as the Occupy movement in the Americas), all entrench settler colonialism, both others’ and our own. What, then, is our accountability to Caribbean indigenous people’s sovereign right to self-determination?

These are not intellectual musings, but real political questions. For a generation of Caribbean young people who, for the first time in history, are experiencing biodiversity and climate changes that may not be reversed within their lifetimes, alternatives to business as usual are evermore urgent.

That model, established in and expanded from this region, is not all that is on offer, and it no longer offers us what our futures fundamentally we need. This generation of Caribbean children can and eventually must move us from resistance to transformation. That shift requires us to decide what life and justice look like beyond the selves, narratives, relations, structures and possibilities built, like a chain link fence around us, since 1492.

There is no lack of realism here. Rather, there is clear gaze on a global political-economy that is neither timeless nor inevitable. There is clear reading of our potential choices in this place and time. Yet, having had fires of hope mashed down to ash from 1962 to 2015, many adults’ crumpled cynicism no longer remembers or prioritizes the necessity of upcoming Caribbean generations’ truly, globally, decolonial dreams.

No liberatory changes are possible without a vision beyond what is currently dominant, yet unsustainable. This generation needs radically transformative ideals as much as the clean air and water that adults have failed to sufficiently fight for. It needs world changing politics, and the life force of big collective and long-term ideas and movements, not merely individual and immediate workforce skills.

Why Trinidad and Tobago rather than Kairi? Why British government structures? Why shouldn’t we found just models for the world when an unjust model for the world was founded here from 1492?

We live amidst cosmologies that are deeply Caribbean, and must stop seeing our history as beginning and our futures ending with colonization. Colonization, here, isn’t a metaphor. It’s the governing principle under which indigenous people dream of land, life and solidarity. Engaging each other to imagine freedom outside of colonial terms is ethical, urgent and necessary.

Post 227.

Only five years old, and not quite brave, my sapodilla, Ziya, has begun walking forest trails, as Amerindian folk once did, later followed by Africans escaping the fate of plantation enslaved, then by Indians and panyols working on cocoa estates.

These are just beginnings, which have so far taken her to Avocat waterfall, Paria waterfall, Carmelita waterfall, Turure waterfall, Matelot waterfall and Rio Seco waterfall.  Some paths have been difficult, like the slippery descent down the hill in Matelot or the muddy circuitous route into the forest from Salibya.

All have required her to learn to quiet her spirit and focus on the next step. All have shown her exactly how tree roots hold whole hillsides together, as we use them for balance around curves and inclines. She can see how rain pools between theses roots, understanding then, as her shoes sink into the muddy forest floor, how such ecoystems stop topsoil from washing away.

Reaching the waterfalls themselves is to come upon cathedrals built over thousands of years. The water rushing down has been circulating the earth since before the mass extinction of dinosaurs, and has been flowing in those rivers for millennia.

To realize we have inherited an island paradise like this, where waterfalls spring throughout the Northern range as well as in Tobago, and that many generations of one people or another have stood right on these river rocks, swam in just these cascading crystals, and observed both their science and their spirit, feels huge and historical and humbling.

There is all this that is ours, like a right, except that it’s not a right of ours, but a right of nature. Ecuador was the first country to recognize the “rights of nature” in its constitution. Bolivia has initiated the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth. World leaders formally signed the Convention of the International Tribunal for the Rights of Nature in December 2015 in Paris.

In this emerging global governance framework, organizations and communities can take legal action against states and corporations in defense against destruction of our oceans and forests, water, soil, seeds and air.  Indigenous people are leading the way, as they continue to push back against a contemporary economy that relies on profits from resource consumption and depletion, and is now destroying life everywhere.

There is zero reason to wait for everything to fall apart to begin to properly protect the only sources of fresh water, fragile biodiversity, and freely bequeathed beauty that will sustain us for generations to come. With declining returns from oil and gas, which will continue to decline in net value when we factor in increasing environmental costs and the coming efficiency of renewable energy sources, nature is ever more precious.

Vandana Shiva, globally-renowed Indian scientist, started her ecological journey as a child following her parents in the Himalayas. “Everything I need to know I learned in the forest”, she says, “Today, at a time of multiple crises, we need to move away from thinking of nature as dead matter to valuing her biodiversity, clean water, and seeds. For this, nature herself is the best teacher”.

While she walks, Ziya’s learns other lessons. Those who also walk these trails leave every imaginable form of garbage along the way, stuffing juice boxes in tree stumps amidst moss and mushrooms, leaving Styrofoam boxes floating amongst rivers’ fishes.

Dozens of hiking businesses wretchedly fail to collectively keep clean the very trails from which they earn incomes. Zi clambered her way right to Turure’s rockface only to see it wholly defaced by graffiti, with names like scars showing violence without shame. Forestry Division exercises no real role or power here, so whole piles of garbage are dumped or left, and not one soul seems to care.

What does this teach about us as individuals, and about the state’s long-term public message, infrastructure and plan regarding waste management and nature? As Native American, Chief Seattle long warned, what befalls the Earth, befalls the children of the Earth. “Take only memories, leave nothing but footprints” are his words. As we leave, I wonder if there is enough will to ensure a future where Zi walks untainted trails with her own five year old.

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