High-Level Meeting on 25th Anniversary of Fourth World Conference on Women - Part 3

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01-Oct-2020 02:11:16
Progress towards gender equality under threat, world leaders warn as General Assembly marks twenty-fifth anniversary of landmark women’s rights conference.

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Targeted Measures Crucial for Fulfilling Beijing Promise, Secretary‑General Says, as Speakers Spotlight Gains, Setbacks in Health, Human Rights, Economic Empowerment

Twenty‑five years after the landmark Fourth World Conference on Women, global societies need an unqualified push to meet the elusive promise of gender equality that had brought millions to Beijing in 1995 to demand action, Secretary‑General António Guterres told a High‑level General Assembly meeting to review progress.

“It starts with the equal representation of women in leadership positions — in Governments, boardrooms, in climate negotiations and at the peace table — everywhere decisions are taken that affect people’s lives,” he said. “This is fundamentally a question of power.”

Fulfilling the ambitious vision outlined in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action — adopted at the Conference — will require targeted measures, he said. One woman in three still experiences violence in her lifetime. Every year, 12 million girls marry before the age of 18. In 2017, 137 women were killed daily by a family member. The World Bank estimates it could take 150 years to achieve gender parity in lifetime earned income — and that closing that gap would generate $172 trillion in human capital wealth.

To be sure, the Beijing Declaration spurred 274 legal and regulatory reforms in 131 countries, said Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN‑Women). At the founding of the United Nations in 1945, there were no women Heads of State or Government. In 1995, there were 12 — and today, there are 22. “All in all, progress, but not yet enough, and too slow,” she said. Parity is needed in all spheres — including cabinets, corporate boards and throughout the economy. “We need big bold steps,” she said, warning those gathered that modest gains made since 1995 are under threat.

On that point, Hilary Gbedemah, Chair of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, described a changed global rights landscape since Beijing, amid attempts to dilute the Convention and focus on “traditional values” that seek to undermine sexual and reproductive health. Women human rights defenders face violence, including online, and women’s organizations face obstacles to both funding and registration.

“We need to focus on pushback movements,” said Dubravka Šimonović, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, who drew attention to abuse in intimate partner relationships and domestic settings, which is “invisible, unreported and normalized” — and as a result, not adequately addressed.

Ixchel Adolfo, a young leader from Guatemala, pressed world leaders to create safe environments — “from childhood to adulthood” — so girls do not have to fear what people say or endure violence, even death. Girls need holistic education throughout their lives so they can become women leaders. “Give us spaces for dialogue” she said, and open conversations. “The people who know about our needs are us.”

Addressing the gathering, Assembly President Feridun Hadi Sinirlioğlu (Turkey) urged participants to use their voices and votes on behalf of those who entrusted them to sit behind their country placards. “The onus is upon you to shift the status quo,” he said. It is time to accept a simple fact: “A woman empowered is not a threat.”

Encouraging boys to understand that they are equal in every way to their sisters, he spoke directly to his granddaughters — and all girls — reminding them that there is nothing that women cannot do. “Never doubt your personal power,” he said. “Assert your power.” He asked how long it would take to fully reach gender parity. “Why wait” for the centenary of the United Nations or the fiftieth World Conference on Women. “It is time to level the playing field.”

During the day‑long debate, more than 100 leaders spoke in pre‑recorded videos fed into a physically distanced General Assembly Hall. Many reviewed progress — or the lack thereof — in 12 critical areas laid out in the Beijing Platform for Action, including combating poverty and violence against women, ensuring all girls receive an education and involving women at top levels of business and Government, as well as at peacemaking tables.

In that context, President Emanuel Macron of France acknowledged that “it’s no secret that, in 2020, the Beijing Declaration would have no chance of being adopted.” All over the world, women’s rights — alongside the human rights from which they are indivisible — are being reversed, with the denial of women’s rights to make decisions about their bodies, and the right to abortion, among the most contested.

Katrin Jakobsdottir, Prime Minister of Iceland, likewise warned of efforts to roll back victories on women’s sexual and reproductive rights and expressed concern about increased politicization. The COVID‑19 pandemic has only emboldened those seeking to curtail such freedoms. “We see an increase in existing inequalities, an alarming rise in gender‑based violence and a sharp increase in extreme poverty among women,” she said, calling for gender‑inclusive pandemic responses.

Taking a contrasting view, Damares Alves, Brazil’s Minister for Women, Family and Human Rights, said that despite what is said in United Nations forums, there is no alleged right to terminate pregnancy. Nor is there anything in international law or international human rights law regarding the hypothetical right of women to abortion as a family planning option. She underscored Brazil’s efforts to increase women’s involvement in politics.

As the Prime Minister of the world’s first feminist Government, Stefan Löfven of Sweden said “no society will prosper if half of its population is denied access to education, to the possibility of working and to supporting a family.” Sweden will remain a progressive country for women’s rights and gender equality, he assured, noting that having an income of their own is decisive for women’s economic independence.

Many world leaders highlighted the gains made in the 25 years since the Beijing Conference, with Georgia’s President Salome Zourabichvili, noting that her country established women’s voting rights more than 100 years ago, and in 2018, elected the first female President in the region. Efforts must focus on the social stereotypes that nurture discrimination. “If we do not address men and boys, our endeavours will not give the required effects,” she said, invoking the memory of United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose legacy as one of the most fervent fighters for women’s rights will live on.

Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta likewise touted his country’s hosting of the 1985 Third World Conference on Women, which defined the Nairobi Forward‑Looking Strategies for achieving gender equality at the national level. “Gender equality remains central to the development agenda of my Administration,” he asserted, and enshrined in Kenya’s constitution.

Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi pointed out that his was the first country to issue a policy paper responding to the special needs of women and girls in the context of the COVID‑19 pandemic. Emphasizing the importance of women’s involvement in peacebuilding negotiations, he said Egypt has participated in the development of the Arab regional strategy for implementing Security Council resolution 1325 (2000) on women, peace and security.

On the subject of education for women and girls, Mauritius’s Minister for Gender Equality and Family Welfare, K.D. Koonjoo-Shah, said that free education for all is a reality in her country. That is the case not only at the primary and secondary levels but also at the tertiary level, she noted, underscoring that Mauritius boasts a literacy rate of 89 per cent. In fact, girls’ academic achievements are better than boys at all levels.

Michelle Bavy Angelica, Minister for Population, Social Protection and Promotion of Women of Madagascar, drew attention to the progress that her country has made for women and girls in the legislative sphere. One of Madagascar’s laws allows women the right to decide on the size of their families, while another gives girls control over their reproductive health. In 2016, a nationality law was enacted that permits women to pass their Madagascan nationality onto their children. Legislation that defines sexual abuse and marital rape as seriously punishable acts was signed into law in 2019.

Also addressing the topic of sexual violence, Ayanna Webster‑Roy, Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, said that her country has made new legislative and policy changes as part of its Sexual Offences Act 2019, as well as its sexual harassment policy to ensure that gender equality remains at the heart of the country’s socioeconomic policy.

Everly Paul Chet Greene, Antigua and Barbuda’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Immigration and Trade, told Member States that his country has established a support and referral centre for gender-based violence and, with funds from the Government of Canada, a court to address sexual offence cases.

Teodro Locsin Jr., Secretary for Foreign Affairs of the Philippines, said that while his country is ranked number two in its region for gender equality, in much of the world, “the depravity of the strong sex knows no limits”. This makes international action vital, especially regarding the implementation of measures to protect migrant women and girls from trafficking and violence. Noting that his country is a major producer of child pornography, he underscored the need to combat that scourge.

The high‑level plenary debate also featured video remarks by Heads of State and Government, and senior officials of Ethiopia, Switzerland, Finland, Nepal, Ghana, Botswana, Nigeria, Bolivia, Slovenia, North Macedonia, Turkey, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Kiribati, South Africa, Costa Rica, Liberia, Marshall Islands, Colombia, Comoros, Seychelles, Uruguay, Iran, Ecuador, Sierra Leone, Tuvalu (also on behalf of the Pacific Islands Forum), Norway, Spain, Fiji, Bangladesh, Sweden, Denmark, Tonga, Germany, Iceland, Eswatini, Estonia, Italy, Canada, Kazakhstan, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Armenia, Serbia, Thailand, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Belgium, Viet Nam, Uzbekistan, Netherlands, Portugal, Australia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Peru, India, Austria, Tunisia, Cuba, Chile, Czech Republic, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Myanmar, Iraq, Algeria, Namibia, Luxembourg, Bhutan, Cabo Verde, United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Mongolia, Congo, Guyana, Israel, Venezuela, Indonesia, Ireland, Côte d'Ivoire, Liechtenstein, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Gambia, Mauritania, Malaysia (also on behalf of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Chad, Dominican Republic, Sudan, Croatia, Panama, Suriname, Maldives, Hungary, Moldova, Cyprus, Paraguay, Andorra, Republic of Korea, Malta, Haiti, Kuwait, Rwanda and Qatar, as well as the European Union.

The opening segment also heard a video address by President Xi Jinping, President of China, as well as by Natalia Kanem, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA); Elizabeth Broderick, Chair of the Human Rights Council Working Group on discrimination against women and girls; Nomzamo Mbatha, eminent high‑level champion of gender equality; and Sascha Gabizon, Director of Women Engage for a Common Future.

Opening Remarks

FERIDUN HADI SINIRLIOĞLU (Turkey), President of the General Assembly, said it is a rare circumstance when each member of society has a role to play in making the world a better place. It is even rarer when all people can take a small step that can lead to a huge change. In that spirit, he called on each world leader to continue taking action to meet the challenges of a rapidly developing world. “Your commitment to meet people’s needs will help accelerate gender equality,” he said. “It is up to us to bridge the digital divide, provide more girls with education and provide more opportunities to women.” To those in the General Assembly Hall today, “the onus is upon you to shift the status quo”, he said, urging them to use their voices and votes on behalf of those who entrusted them to sit behind their countries’ placards.

He called on Member States to implement past resolutions — on the girl child, on women migrant workers and on improving the situation of women and girls in rural areas — stressing that action requires more than simply passing legislation. “We need to shift established norms,” he said. Thanking civil society leaders, he said “we would not be here without you” and urged them to continue raising their voices. Were it not for COVID‑19, they would be in the General Assembly Hall today and “your seats remain open”. To health‑care and social workers who have worked throughout the pandemic — and the women who make up 70 per cent of the labour force – “we thank you”, he said, also hailing daily efforts by peacekeepers to uphold women’s rights in the most challenging environments. “Now is time to up the ante,” he asserted.

To people around the world, he said it is time to accept a simple fact: “A woman empowered is not a threat. In celebrating diversity, everyone prospers.” When women are engaged in peace processes, peace is more likely to last. He encouraged boys to know they are equal in every way to their sisters — no better or worse. And to his granddaughters and all girls, he encouraged them to remember “there is nothing that women cannot do. We need women in power.” There is power in a podium, in information, data and science, in girls’ words and in sharing their lived experiences. “Never doubt your personal power,” he said. “Assert your power.” He encouraged everyone to reflect on when the world will actually reach full gender equality, whether it will be at the fiftieth anniversary of the World Conference on Women, or perhaps in celebrating the centenary of the United Nations. “Why wait?” he asked, calling for full buy‑in from Governments, civil society, private sector, the United Nations and “you at home”. Multilateralism is fuelled by decision makers at all levels, he said. It is time to level the playing field.

ANTÓNIO GUTERRES, Secretary‑General of the United Nations, recalling the landmark moment represented by the Fourth World Conference on Women and noting that more girls are in school than ever before in history, said that despite such gains, the ambitious vision of the Beijing Declaration remains unfulfilled. One woman in three still experiences some form of violence in her lifetime and females are still frequently excluded from peace negotiations, climate talks and decision‑making roles of all kinds. Further, women and girls are bearing the brunt of the massive social and economic impact of COVID‑19. Twenty‑five years after Beijing, he said, “we are facing a women‑led recession” as females employed in the informal economy are first to lose their jobs. While women nurses and caregivers are on the front lines of the pandemic response, men occupy 70 per cent of leadership roles in health care, he pointed out.

Also drawing attention to “a shadow pandemic of gender‑based violence during COVID‑19”, he cautioned that the pandemic could wipe out a generation of fragile progress towards gender equality. Noting that the systems and structures of the world are based on millennia of male domination, he said that meeting the unfulfilled promise of Beijing is fundamentally “a question of power”. Calling for targeted measures including affirmative action and quotas, he noted that the United Nations achieved gender parity in its leadership at the beginning of 2020, with 90 women and 90 men as full‑time senior leaders. The Organization is now working for parity at all levels, not simply for the sake of female staff, but because women’s leadership makes institutions more effective, he stressed.

The current catastrophe, he added, is also an opportunity to put women front and centre of the recovery. Stimulus funds should put money directly into women’s hands through cash transfers and credits, and Governments should expand social safety nets to women in the informal economy and recognize the value of unpaid care work. Noting that in recent times, there has been a pushback against women’s rights, he said, “now is the time to push back against the pushback.” Also correcting a common misconception, he said, “the Beijing Conference did not only concern women. It concerned women, men, girls and boys.” Women’s full human rights and freedoms are fundamental to peace and prosperity on a healthy planet.

XI JINPING, President of China, said women are at the forefront of the fight against the COVID‑19 pandemic and deserve admiration for their heroism. He said that at the height of the pandemic in China 40,000 health‑care workers rushed to the epicentre to address the crisis; of those, two thirds were women. “Women medical workers in China, through their devotion and work, played a key role in maintaining the integrity of the country,” he said, also calling for increased efforts to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on women, especially front‑line workers, to ensure the success of COVID‑19 recovery efforts.

He said COVID‑19 responses offer a platform for women to take leadership roles, adding that the success of those efforts hinges on minimizing the effects of the pandemic on females, especially front‑line workers.

Calling for an end to discrimination and violence towards women, he stressed that their rights and interests are central to sustainable development. He urged enhanced global cooperation in advancing the rights of women and called on the United Nations to redouble efforts to address emerging challenges for females, including bridging the gender‑digital divide. To that end, China pledged to donate $5 million to the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN‑Women) over the next five years. “We must work harder to build a world in which women are free from discrimination,” he said, urging renewed efforts to advance the global cause of their development.

PHUMZILE MLAMBO‑NGCUKA, Executive Director of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN‑Women), said the Beijing Declaration spurred 274 legal and regulatory reforms in 131 countries and has increased the role of women in peace processes. She noted that, at the founding of the United Nations in 1945 there were no women Heads of State or Government, adding that in 1995 there were 12 and that today there are 22. “All in all, progress, but not yet enough, and too slow,” she said, adding that women’s leadership is vital to the success of COVID‑19 recovery efforts. Women are calling for parity in all spheres, including cabinets, corporate boards and throughout the economy, she stated.

Ms. Mlambo‑Ngcuka said the basic elements needed to roll back extreme poverty are in place. “We need big bold steps, not incremental ones,” she said, warning those gathered that modest gains made since 1995 are under threat. She made a call to action, stressing that now is the time to change the course of history for women and girls, especially those between the ages of 25 and 34 who are more likely to live in extreme poverty than their male counterparts. She urged bold leadership, unwavering political will and urgent investments to ensure that the girls of today can become thriving young women. She closed by noting that the pandemic has a disproportionate effect on women, who are the majority of those saving lives.

NATALIA KANEM, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), said protecting women’s sexual and reproductive rights is essential for their empowerment. “As the potential of women and girls is diminished, so too is humanity.” While positive strides towards the goals of the Beijing Declaration have been made, daily stories that unfold, including continued female genital mutilation practices and adolescent marriages, show that there is a long way to go. UNFPA co‑leads the Coalition on Bodily Autonomy and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights and data shows that only 55 per cent of women worldwide can make their own decisions about their reproductive health, she said, adding that 280,00 adolescents and young women became infected by HIV in 2019. The COVID‑19 crisis threatens to set progress further back and strong political action and international support are needed to prevent such rollback. Investing in women and girls is smart economics with benefits to society many times the cost.

HILARY GBEDEMAH, Chair of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, said that between the fortieth anniversary of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and the twenty‑fifth anniversary of the Fourth World Conference, the world has marked two historic milestones for women’s rights. Today’s review offers an opportunity to recommit to these two landmark documents. Over 25 years, the Committee has interpreted the rights in the Convention through its jurisprudence and in its General Recommendations on women in political life, health, education, older women, women migrant workers, rural women, women in conflict, harmful practices and gender‑based violence against women, among others. They require States to actualize their legally binding Convention obligations and their corresponding political commitments under the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.

“Both the Convention and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action are driving forces for transformative change,” she said, recalling that significant progress has been made over the years, with gender parity in education achieved on average at the global level and the maternal mortality ratio 38 per cent lower in 2017 than in 2000. “Sustainable development cannot be achieved without women’s equal participation in decision‑making and leadership across all areas of the Convention, Beijing Platform for Action and the Sustainable Development Goals,” she assured.

Since Beijing, the global rights landscape has changed, with attempts to dilute the Convention and focus on “traditional values” that seek to confine women to the family and undermine sexual and reproductive health. Women human rights defenders face violence, including online, and criminalization of their work or restrictions on registering and funding women’s organizations. Drawing attention to the guidance note on COVID‑19, which provides States with tools to promote women’s rights in their pandemic response and recovery plans, she went on to underscore the importance of strengthening the human rights treaty bodies. Without the necessary resources, they will fall behind in their work — with dire consequences for many rights holders. She pressed States to “grasp this moment in history” as an opportunity to adopt transformative strategies based on principles of non‑discrimination and solidarity to achieve gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.

ELIZABETH BRODERICK, Chair of the Human Rights Council’s Working Group on discrimination against women and girls, said that, while important progress has been made towards the goals of the Beijing Declaration, discrimination against females and impunity for violations persists. The pandemic is having a disproportionately negative impact on women and anti‑gender equality actors across all regions are threatening hard‑fought gains, she warned. On behalf of the Working Group, she asked the international community to use its power and influence to deliver on the promises of the Declaration and prevent rollback and reassert gender equality.

DUBRAVKA ŠIMONOVIĆ, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, noting her long history in different roles at the United Nations, said that 2020 was expected to be a big year for women. However, due to COVID‑19, everything has been scaled down and “we are meeting in this half‑empty room, missing the presence of the women activists whose participation is crucial,” she said. Noting the pandemic’s effect on her schedule of country visits, she added that in the past five years, she conducted 11 country visits. All of them revealed huge gaps between the realities of women and girls on the ground and international standards. Further, she said, based on 274 inputs from countries, she has also prepared a report on the intersection between COVID‑19 and gender‑based violence.

“We need to focus on pushback movements,” she said, calling gender‑based violence a structural pandemic. Violence against women, especially in intimate partner relationships and domestic settings, is “invisible, unreported and normalized,” she said; as a result, it is not adequately addressed by States. The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action should be implemented in conjunction with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and regional treaties, using synergies between them to accelerate the elimination of violence, she said. Also noting new forms of violence such as online violence and violence against women in politics, she stressed that it is also vital to harmonize national laws with international standards and implement a United Nations systemwide approach to combat violence against females.

NOMZAMO MBATHA, eminent high‑level champion of gender equality, said 25 years ago, through the Beijing Declaration, the world promised to achieve equal rights for women and girls everywhere. Today, the Declaration remains as relevant as ever, she said, stressing that efforts to ensure equality must account for the interests of realities of women and girls forced to flee their homes. Gender equality remains the biggest human rights challenge on Earth and over half of those forced to flee their homes due to hardship are women and girls. Women and girls in refugee camps offer inspiring stories, she said, citing a young girl’s desire at one such camp to become a doctor. That girl was forced to flee her home due to war, she said, noting that access to education for refugees is critical to development.

Refugee women and girls suffer disproportionately in the face of the COVID‑19 pandemic, she said, noting that over half of females enrolled in schools will likely not return after pandemic‑related school closures end. “Forcibly displaced women are agents for change, using their voices to demand equality,” she said, noting that gender equality is at the heart of the work of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). “There can be no future without the equal participation of all women and girls,” she closed.

SASCHA GABIZON, Director of Women Engage for a Common Future, recalling that she was one of the 30,000 participants at the Beijing Conference, noted with regret that 25 years later, in many countries, “instead of progress we see regress”. Sexual and reproductive health rights are under attack, and women human rights defenders, indigenous women, women of colour and trans women are imprisoned, assassinated and discriminated against. “We need you all to push back against this pushback,” she said, adding that the combined crises of armed conflicts, COVID‑19, the climate and environmental crisis made it vital to stand up even stronger for women’s rights.

Women are at the front lines fighting these multiple crises, she noted, adding that they are the majority of health sector workers. However, they are also under attack from increased sexual and gender‑based violence as a result of the COVID‑19 lockdowns. Gender‑based violence and discrimination are systemic, growing out of colonialism, slavery and patriarchal traditions that perpetuate violence against people of colour, Dalits, sex workers, people with disabilities and gender non‑conforming persons. Acknowledging the victories of the #MeToo campaign and the new International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention No. 190 on violence and harassment, she called on all Member States to ratify that agreement. “And we won’t let you off the hook on your past commitments either,” she said, demanding the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention), 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Goal 5 on gender equality.

Intersectional feminists are insisting on structural transformation, she said, adding that it is necessary to defund the military and invest in health care, social protection and women’s rights. Reiterating the Secretary‑General’s call for a global ceasefire, she said that the Security Council must contain women and men impacted by conflicts, not the arms‑exporting nations. “That is clearly a conflict of interest,” she said, calling on countries to divest from plastics, pesticides, mineral and nuclear industries. Stressing the need for debt cancellation, an equal share of COVID‑19 vaccines for countries in the global South and a tax convention to end the downward spiral of tax paradises, which profit billionaires whilst 3.7 billion people suffer in poverty, she added, “let’s not wait until the United Nations turns 100”.

IXCHEL ADOLFO, young woman leader, explaining her volunteer work ensures that the voices of young girls in Guatemala are heard around the world, said she is also a leader of the Coalition for Action on Gender‑Based Violence. Women make up 51.5 per cent of Guatemala’s population — 33.4 per cent of them are aged 0 to 14 years. Yet, women and girls have not been considered in decision‑making, due to machismo, inequality and inequity. Noting that 40 per cent of COVID‑19 cases are among women, she said there have been other effects on women’s education, health, mortality and safety. Between January and May, for example, 1,962 teen pregnancies were reported in girls aged 10 to 14 years old, and 44,000 reported among those between 15 and 19 years old. “I ask all leaders, as well as decision makers who are listening today, to create safe environments — from childhood to adulthood — in which we do not fear what people say, violence, enforced disappearance or death,” she stressed, also pressing them to provide holistic education throughout their lives to ensure they are empowered as future women leaders. Governments also must provide holistic health services in which women and girls are not stigmatized for asking for contraception, family planning or the means to prevent sexually transmitted diseases. Comprehensive public policies and training must be developed that cover national laws and the international treaties signed by Governments. “We need to work together” — as girls, adolescents and young people. She encouraged decision makers to “give us spaces for dialogue” and to open conversations. “The people who know about our needs are us.”

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