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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Why Women? A Look at Cutting-Edge Efforts to Catalyze Economic Growth

Catherine M. Russell
U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues , Office of Global Women's Issues

Washington, DC
September 8, 2015

Date: 09/08/2015 Location: Washington, DC Description: U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues Catherine Russell briefs foreign journalists on new U.S.-led innovations pertaining to women in the economy at the Washington Foreign Press Center. - State Dept Image
2:00 P.M. EST


MODERATOR: Thank you for being here today. My name is Mark Zimmer. I’m at the Foreign Press Center here. We’ve very pleased today to have Ambassador Catherine Russell, who handles women’s issues at the State Department. She will start with a statement and then we’ll open it up for questions. We have colleagues in New York as well joining us. We’re recording this. It’s on the record. We’ll broadcast it later on, and very much appreciate you being here.

With that, Ambassador.

AMBASSADOR RUSSELL: Thank you, Mark. And thank you all very much for being here. I’m going to start with a statement just to lay out kind of what we’re doing, and then I’m really delighted to take any questions that you have.

So first, thank you so much for your interest in our work on women’s economic empowerment. I’m really looking forward to the discussion. I’d like to start with going over some of the reasons why gender equality and, particularly, women’s ability to fully participate in the economy is a U.S. foreign policy priority.

First, the United States believes that women are entitled to the same rights and opportunities as men. That’s a pretty simple statement. Equality is an important value to us and it’s one we really would like to share with other countries.

Second, we believe it’s in everyone’s best interest to advance gender equality. In countries where women and men are on a level playing field we see increased peace, stability, and economic growth. Women’s participation in the economy is an important part of this. There is significant data that show how communities, businesses, and economies benefit from women’s participation in all areas of the economy, whether it’s business leadership, entrepreneurship, or labor force participation.

For example, the World Bank has estimated that GDP in Egypt would rise by 34 percent if women equaled men in the workforce. And while that seems like a huge number, it makes sense when you look at other factors at play. In the Middle East and North Africa region, women’s participation in the labor force is approximately 21 percent, while men’s participation is an estimated 75 percent. When you consider that women in the region are more likely to attend university, these numbers really don’t add up. Women are being educated at higher rates, and yet they aren’t entering and remaining in the workforce. That’s potential that the region and the whole world, in fact, really cannot afford to waste.

So I’m not saying it’s easy to address this issue. Clearly, there are many steps ahead, from changing laws that make it harder for women to access credit to changing minds about women’s proper role in society. But what the data shows us is that this really is worth the effort, and that’s why the United States is working to develop tools and innovative ideas that can change public policy and ultimately change public opinion.

I’m here today because the United States and specifically the State Department is really trying to lead the way on developing and implementing innovative initiatives that we hope will make a big difference in both global economic growth and women’s empowerment. One of the biggest opportunities we see for more women’s economic empowerment is entrepreneurship. Many women around the world already own businesses, and they show us the potential that lies in investing in women. Women business owners are more likely to invest in other women who, on the whole, are also more likely than men to put their money into their children’s education and health care. In other words, we think women are a good investment. And because of their roles in society women often bring unique ideas and perspectives to business. Plus, starting and owning a business offers women the flexibility they often need, not to mention a pathway to financial independence.

Many women around the world pursue entrepreneurship through artisan businesses. The artisan sector is one of the largest employers in developing countries and the primary means of income for many women and their families. It’s also – and this was a surprise – a $32 billion industry. And yet the sector is often overlooked or ignored. What we see is that there isn’t the support in the sector that we find in other industries like tech, transport, or agriculture. Artisans face greater difficulties in accessing the financing they need to scale their businesses or meet fluctuating demands and purchases, and they often don’t have the connections to global value chains that you find in other sectors. So we see an opportunity to unleash the full potential of the artisan sector.

That’s why this Thursday at the State Department we are hosting a forum dedicated to addressing these issues. We’re bringing together the key stakeholders – government officials, business leaders, artisans, consumers, donors, and investors – to talk about the impact of the sector and what everyone in the room can do to support it. Our work to support artisans is part of a broader focus on entrepreneurship. We find the main barriers women face in starting and growing a business are pretty much the same everywhere – access to market, access to capital, skills and capacity building, and leadership opportunities. That’s why we have created centers in Africa and South Asia that are resources for women who want to start or grow a business, and that’s why there was a full day dedicated just to women and youth at this year’s Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Kenya that the President attended. It’s also why the APEC economies are meeting next week in the Philippines to advance women in the economy. I’ll lead the U.S. delegation there, and I’m excited to share with you that at APEC we’ll be launching several cutting-edge tools that will go a long way in bringing more women into the APEC economies.

I know we’re going to get to questions in a moment, so I’ll preview these four initiatives very briefly. Under the umbrella of the Women’s Entrepreneurship in APEC Initiative, we have two exciting new projects. First, we will be officially launching the online platform that will enable women entrepreneurship networks, governments, and investors throughout the APEC region to connect, share information, and do business with each other. When the platform launches, it will connect over 650 women’s entrepreneurship networks from across the region.

Second, it will use that online platform to establish a focus group with women entrepreneurs from select economies in the region. This platform will help us track our efforts in increasing regional market opportunities and trade.

Our third initiative is the APEC Women in the Economy Dashboard that Secretary Kerry announced last year. The dashboard will officially launch the meetings in the Philippines later this month. With this dashboard, APEC economies will establish a regional baseline of 75 agreed upon indicators and identify specific actions they can take both domestically and regionally to advance women’s participation in the economy. We’ll use the dashboard to track our progress and share best practices in areas including educational attainment, women’s labor force participation, financial literacy, and women’s participation in the science and technology sectors.

Finally, the United States and the Philippines are co-leading an APEC-wide initiative to identify health issues that prevent women’s full economic participation. That initiative is called Healthy Women, Healthy Economy. As part of the initiative we’ve developed a toolkit with policy recommendations and business practices for the private and public sectors. Companies and economies have already agreed to champion these recommendations to address issues like gender-based violence and access to health care.

You might ask why a forum on economies working on gender-based violence. There’s research that shows that domestic violence costs economies approximately 2 percent of GDP. That’s the same amount of money that many governments spend on education. If we want to empower women in the economy we have to acknowledge how gender-based violence often stands in the way. These issues are often crosscutting and the more we understand the hows and whys of gender inequality, the better our solutions are going to be.

So with that, again, thank you for being here and I’m happy to take any questions that you have.

MODERATOR: Thanks, Ambassador. We’ll open to questions. Please identify yourself and your outlet.

AMBASSADOR RUSSELL: Are any of you coming on Thursday? (Laughter.)


AMBASSADOR RUSSELL: Oh, good. I think it’ll be really interesting to see. I think you would like it, because I actually see the women artisans as always, to me, one of the most fascinating things because some of them are very sophisticated and have very sophisticated businesses, others are really the more sort of traditional idea of artisans that we see. And they are just – they come up with these beautiful, almost crafts, and then they have to figure out how to get (inaudible). Very interesting process to be a part of.

QUESTION: I’m Silvia Ayuso from El Pais newspaper from Spain. Thank you. So I have a couple of questions, maybe first with this entrepreneurship summit. Is it focused on some – I mean, who’s the main focus for you? I mean, which --

AMBASSADOR RUSSELL: Is this the artisan summit?

QUESTION: Yes. It’s more like, I don’t know, maybe some different countries that might also find a way with artisanship, or who’s your main target on that?

AMBASSADOR RUSSELL: What’s interesting as I travel around, I find that almost every country has artisans. I mean, certainly the United States does. So it’s the most developed countries to the least developed countries have artisans. And what we’re trying to do is find ways in all those countries, recognizing the different challenges in each country and every country will have its own approach, but to try to support those artisans, most of whom, again, are women.

So this event that we have on Thursday is bringing together artisans and then also businesses, government representatives. We have several different either ambassadors or representatives from embassies come in – and all looking for ways that we can try to work together to make it easier for these women to sort of do their work and get it into the international supply chain, and hopefully use that as a way to expand the economies.

QUESTION: Hi, I’m Michael Aharoni from Israel.

AMBASSADOR RUSSELL: Oh, nice to meet you.

QUESTION: Nice to meet you.

AMBASSADOR RUSSELL: I saw some beautiful artisans in Israel. Beautiful.

QUESTION: Yeah, well, thank you. I feel like a representative of the country, so I will say a big thank you.

You were talking about the network that you were about to establish, but what about women who don’t have any access to internet, to network? I mean, how do they supposed to participate in this whole thing?

AMBASSADOR RUSSELL: Well, and it is certainly one of the challenges, right? We are constantly looking for ways to reach out to women who are doing this work. And there are plenty of men artisans too but most of them are women. I think it’s hard – the United States obviously can’t solve that problem, right? We do many things. We support efforts to try to increase access to the internet everywhere. We’re working on that. We do things through our embassies where we reach out – try to reach out into communities and make sure that if women are involved in these processes, they have a way to kind of connect with our embassies so that we can try to support them. But I mean, it’s a totally fair point; it’s not easy.

But it goes to a much broader issue, right, of the lack of connectivity in many places, and the ability for us and for other governments to reach into more rural communities, a lot of times the more sort of classic kind of groups that may not be part of the – the smaller ethnic groups who are doing just beautiful work in preserving the beauty of their societies and their cultures, but not so much a part of the economy. And we’re trying to find ways to bring them in. That’s really the purpose of this. And again, some of them are big entrepreneurs, but some of them are really small. It’s just that they’re so small they – it would be hard for them to participate in providing goods to a place like Anthropologie or some of these companies – Pier 1 – companies that might be willing to sell those sorts of goods but they don’t have – these women wouldn’t otherwise have access. That’s part of what we’re trying to do through the alliance.

QUESTION: Iftikhar Hussaid. I work for Voice of America – Pakistan, Afghanistan. Good to see you. You mention that you’re launching a online platform for women in this event. Can you elaborate on how, in what ways --


QUESTION: -- it can be helpful?

AMBASSADOR RUSSELL: I think – are you talking about the one that we’re doing at APEC?


AMBASSADOR RUSSELL: Yes, at APEC. The interesting thing – APEC has been an interesting region to work in because the APEC network itself is so dynamic because you have businesses and you have governments who are involved in it. There are lots of different regional networks in the area, and what we’re trying to do through this platform is have an opportunity for all of these different networks to connect with each other. So all the countries, the economies are participating in this; they’re putting their information in and we’ll unveil this thing as we move forward. But I think it’s going to be valuable for them to – it’s sort of two things. One is looking for other businesses that they could do work with in the region, but also learning by example of what works, what doesn’t work. And we’re trying to have opportunities to do best practice sharing throughout this network as well.

QUESTION: Okay. Yeah, I had a question. Hi, my name is Yukiko Toyoda from Kyodo News. I’m from Japan. So I’m interested in your perspectives on how you see the gender equality issue especially in Asia. I think you were touring around maybe Southeast Asia, or maybe the South Asia. So is there any difficulties you see are the (inaudible) to grow maybe based on gender equality in Asia (inaudible)?

AMBASSADOR RUSSELL: Well, I would say this. Every country is kind of on its own journey, hopefully all ending up in some sort of gender equality at some point in the future. Asia is interesting in many ways. There are very dynamic businesswomen in Asia, and I’ve met with many of them really in almost every country that I’ve been to. I mean, I was just in Laos on my last trip and it was a pretty rural area but they had a really wonderful center for disabled women, and they were producing these beautiful things – beautiful scarves and other handiworks. But you also see very high-end efforts in Asia as well.

I think you have a range of economies, obviously. I mean, you look at Japan. I’ve actually spent a fair bit of time in Japan because Japan has such an interesting challenge, which is that they have very educated women, but women – I think two-thirds roughly leave the workforce when they have their first child and they don’t – at this stage they’re really not coming back into the economy in the numbers that Japan needs for the economy to do well. And Prime Minister Abe is very committed to trying to address that because he realizes that they’re just limited: they have an aging population, they don’t really have much of an immigrant population. They need these women to get back into the workforce.

So you see very advanced economies trying to struggle with this and then you see economies that are obviously at kind of the other end also recognizing that they need women to participate. And both the President and the Secretary, because they’re sports people, always use this analogy about how you can’t leave half your team on the bench. And I’m not a sports person but even I can figure that out, right? So if we can all understand the value of this – and that’s what I see in these countries, that there is an interest in trying to make sure that women are included.

But there are many complexities that have to be addressed in this, and gender-based violence is one of them. Girls’ education is another one. I mean, we see in parts of South Asia some real challenges with girls not completing secondary school. And so what we ideally want is to recognize that they – women have a contribution to make, and they’ll make a better contribution, a more advanced contribution, if they’re educated, if they’re healthy, if they have opportunities to participate in the political sphere. And so we try to look at these issues in a really holistic way. And I think that in that part of the world – as I said, it’s a very dynamic part of the globe, but they have some amazing things happening but also some real challenges that they have to face. And so as I said, the United States obviously cannot solve these problems, but we try to be a good partner and offer whatever support that we can.

QUESTION: I had a question about the network which you kind of launched at the APEC. The main partner to cooperate in launching this network is the Philippine Government, or is there any other government?

AMBASSADOR RUSSELL: No, it’s all of the APEC economies. And we also have – as I think I mentioned, we have a very robust participation in APEC by the private sector, and they’re very involved in this as well and very interested in it. So that – this – APEC – the women’s piece of APEC has been quite robust and quite energetic in making sure that we can figure out ways to have women participate more in the economy. And I think this dashboard that we’re talking about I think is going to be very helpful, because – this is sort of the saying in the State Department, that what gets measured gets done. And I think for us to have a better sense of what’s happening and to have all these economies agree that they’re going to participate in providing this information so that we can make this dashboard more useful and really as completely well populated as possible with the data from these countries I think is going to really help us all.

QUESTION: Can I have another?


QUESTION: Do you have any specific challenges for the region – for the Middle East – I mean, according to the Arab Spring? Because the Arab Spring did make some changes, and it has to do a lot with women in places like Egypt, for example. So how can you see the – can you just point out some challenges, some specific challenges?

AMBASSADOR RUSSELL: There – as I said, every country, every region has different challenges. I think with the Arab Spring, it was interesting. There’s a lot of – there were a lot of women who participated in that and a lot of hope about how that would sort of pan out for women going forward. I would say it’s an ongoing journey, and there are some real challenges for women.

Having said that, there are – it’s one of the reasons that we’re focusing on both artisans and entrepreneurs, because there are places where women can get a foothold in a way that if it’s harder for them to participate in the more formal economy, where maybe they get resistance either from people who run the companies or from family. Sometimes the entrepreneurship or the artisan piece, which can overlap but can also be totally separate, are places where they can enter in a more – in a way that’s more amenable to sort of the challenges they face with their families and others. And I think we see that as a place where we can have some impact and really have a way to support them.

I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful about the region. I think there’s a lot of promise. I think the women there – I think I mentioned this earlier – are – many of them are well educated, and I’ve met some amazing entrepreneurs. I met a woman from Saudi Arabia who did – came up with kind of the Keurig of Saudi Arabia for coffee there and really, I mean, has done an amazing job. And it was certainly a surprise to me. She was at the GEF summit last year. But as with all entrepreneurs, she identified a need and came up with a way to solve it and has really got a nice, booming business as a result of that.

So I think my strategy always is to sort of encourage countries to recognize that they will do better if women in their country do better. And that goes from being educated, having their health care taken care of and being able to participate, but certainly being able to participate in the economy. It’s just critical for these countries if they really want to move forward to let women participate in a really – in a very sort of fulsome way.

MODERATOR: Take a question from New York, please?

QUESTION: Yes, yes. Bo Yuan from Wenhui Daily. So this question is from New York City. Ambassador – Madam Ambassador, thank you very much. So the question is: The UN Women will hold the Global Women’s Summit this September. So what’s your expectations to this summit? And also, do you think this summit – there is some interaction between the two summits, this summit and the APEC women’s summit? Thank you very much.

AMBASSADOR RUSSELL: There’s some – I’m sorry, I didn’t – there’s some what between the two?

MODERATOR: Interactions.

AMBASSADOR RUSSELL: Interactions. Yes. UN Women is hosting a summit. It’s kind of meant to acknowledge the fact that we’re 20 years out of the Beijing Women’s Conference. And the idea that UN Women has put forth is to try to have high-level representation by all the governments that will come in and talk about what they’re doing for women in their countries. And I think that – I’ve had a couple conversations with the head of UN Women. They’re very excited about the possibilities here, and certainly the United States – we pride ourselves on the work that we do for women around the world, but we’re also very excited to see other countries and other leaders stepping up and making these commitments. So we’re looking forward to that.

Certainly the APEC – there’s a lot of overlap with people who are at the UN, but these are a little bit separate tracks, but I think all moving towards the same goal, which is the – to try to see if we can empower women in as many places as we possibly can. Does that answer his question? Okay.

MODERATOR: Any further questions, either New York or here?

QUESTION: I have one but not directly related. It’s on women’s issues.

AMBASSADOR RUSSELL: Okay, sure. Sure. That’s okay. Sure, sure.

QUESTION: Also at the UN next week there is going to be – some NGOs are going to launch a campaign (inaudible) on gender equality to promote more gender equality in international institutions, in international --


QUESTION: So I don’t know if you were aware of that, but --


QUESTION: -- maybe just your input on why would you think that it’s important there’s gender equality in – in international organizations and tribunals like (inaudible).

AMBASSADOR RUSSELL: Yeah. I would think there are two reasons. And we see this across the board, and I think it’s a case whether you’re looking at political institutions; whether you’re looking at governing bodies, whether governments or others; whether you’re looking at companies – the way I look at it is that it’s not that anybody’s doing a favor to women by having them participate; it’s that women add a valuable voice to these entities. And we see it – there’s now research, emerging research on boards of directors and how companies that have at least three women on the board of directors tend to be more profitable companies. Everyone’s trying to understand, like, what are the actual dynamics of that, but it seems obvious to me that it’s not just women. You want a variety of voices in any institution. And now as a manager, I certainly see that. I mean, it’s valuable to have different perspectives and to understand those perspectives.

And too often women are not at the table, and we see this in many places. I mean, corporate boards are a challenge in many parts of the world, but in other places, and particularly with the UN, we are interested in making sure that when we have peace negotiating efforts that there are women represented on those – on both sides of those discussions. And too often what happens is that they end up with the combatants at the table, right, and the combatants aren’t typically women – like, okay, fair enough. But women have a stake in the future of their countries, and if you see the huge number of these peace negotiations end up not being that successful, perhaps if we broaden the discussion to people who are also impacted by it, we’re going to be more successful in what we do.

And so I think my view about it is not – as I said, we’re not doing anybody any favors to women by doing this; we’re trying to make these institutions more successful and more kind of thorough in their work and taking into account the different perspectives that they really should be hearing. And as I said, when I deal with countries, the countries that start to understand that, that it is in their interest to do this, I think end up being much more progressive and much more aware of the valuable contributions that women have to make.

Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: How do you choose what to focus on? I mean, do you deal with other countries, what is the most important thing for – valuable for them, or do you just bring the – bring --

AMBASSADOR RUSSELL: “This is our – these are our options?”

QUESTION: Yeah. I mean --

AMBASSADOR RUSSELL: You know what? It’s a combination. I think that what we have in our office is we have four priorities that we work on, and those are – I’ll just give them to you really quickly so you know what they are, but we have first an overarching effort to integrate gender into the work of the State Department. That – putting that aside, that’s an ongoing effort. It’s really important in terms of the lasting ability to do the work that we want to do and that we want to see continue no matter what happens going forward.

But then we work on four priorities. One, gender-based violence – that is, as I mentioned in my remarks, based really on the assumption that it’s hard for women to participate fully in anything when they’re being beaten in one way or another. And the statistics vary, but roughly one in three women around the world who has faced some form of gender-based violence, and that happens both in the family and in the community and in conflict settings.

And we’re trying to help countries deal with that better because if we – and I am always very upfront about this – the United States has not solved this problem for ourselves. It’s a challenge here. But we have spent a lot of time and money and effort over the last 20 years trying to address the problem here, and I think we’ve learned a lot of lessons that we’re happy to share, the most important lesson being that you have to try to address that problem comprehensively as well. You have to make sure judges, prosecutors, hospitals, everybody is informed and understand how they’re part of this process, and ultimately change the idea that it’s okay, it’s a family matter, right? We now say it’s not a family matter, this is a crime, and it needs to be treated as a crime. And so we work with countries, we do exchanges with countries who are interested in getting more information on that.

Second, we do women’s economic empowerment. That I see, we all see as the more positive side of the story, which is to say that when women have some ability to provide for themselves, they invest at higher rates back in their families, they get their kids educated, immunized, and it’s really – we see women as a good investment. The Grameen Bank will give you all the statistics about how women pay back their loans at really high rates. We see women as really worth the investment and will really help these economies. And as I said earlier in my response to somebody on Japan, even the advanced economies get this, that they need to do better in including women. The United States as well, we need to do better and the President is very focused on that.

Three, we do a lot of work on women’s participation broadly, so trying to get more women to participate in the government, run for office, to participate in peacekeeping, peace negotiations – all those places where women’s voices are not always heard. We try to encourage more of that.

And finally, we have a fairly new initiative that we’re working on on adolescent girls, and that comes from – as I traveled around, I would meet these most amazing young girls, really kind of full of optimism and excitement about their – what they can do in the country. And I met with some girls. I remember a girl in Afghanistan – they were talking to me about what they – and I always say, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And these girls are saying – they know I’m a lawyer so a lot of them say, “Oh, I want to be a lawyer too,” and one of them said, “I want to be president of Afghanistan,” and I thought 10 years ago, obviously, no chance that that ever would have happened. These girls are full of optimism about their future, but in many places in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, it’s squashed, right? They are forced out of school for many reasons, either because their families are worried about them traveling to schools, they’re outside their neighborhoods or their communities, or they get put to work or they get married early. And all of that potential is squashed, which I find just truly heartbreaking.

So we’re very focused on these – this sort of cohort of girls and thinking about what we and the United States can do to support them. And I think we’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no easy answer, but the single best thing we can do is try to keep them in school as long as we can and hopefully move them into the economy at a higher level, and just provide them a better future, which will obviously make their children healthier and all the rest of it. So the First Lady is very engaged in this process and we have an effort called Let Girls Learn, where we’re just – we’re really thinking about how to kind of change a little bit what has been our traditional approach, which has been focusing on primary school and recognizing that these girls are falling off when they get to secondary school, adolescence, and what do we do about that and trying to keep them in school.

So those are our broad initiatives, and we – honestly, I travel to a country and if we have willing partners, we’re almost always willing to try to find some way to be supportive. I mean, the United States does a lot of work in many different places. We also work with our – we have a lot of allies in this effort. The UK is very involved in girls’ education, very involved in addressing child marriage. Many of the Nordic countries are involved in what we’re trying to do in Afghanistan. So we look for partners, we look to work together in other places. But really, pretty much any country that is interested in getting our help, we try to find a way to help them.

Sorry for that very long answer to your brief question, but --

QUESTION: No, it was fascinating, I must admit. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Should we take one more?


QUESTION: Can I ask another question about the network?


QUESTION: Yeah, yeah, on the – is that – (inaudible) kind of website or something?

AMBASSADOR RUSSELL: There will be. Whether the public has access to it is a question I don’t know the answer to, but I will find out and I’ll get back to you on that. The idea is to provide a network that all these different economies can use. Is it something that the press could look at? I don't know the answer to that. But we’ll figure that out and get back to you.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Thank you very much.

AMBASSADOR RUSSELL: Well, no, I really – I am grateful to all of you. I think one of the things that is important to our work, unlike a lot of the work that goes on at the State Department, is the more awareness of the issues there is, the better. So to the extent that you all are writing stories, putting out stories about the challenges women face, the ways that not just the United States but other countries are trying to address it is tremendously helpful to us. And I think one of the most important things we’re trying to do is change the notion that women in many places are really repressed, and I think the way we do that is to change people’s ideas of women and the contributions they can make, and the same with girls. So what you’re doing is at least as important as what we’re doing, so thank you for that. I really appreciate it. And if you have questions as you go forward that you want to ask, Rachel Wallace is here who works with me and does all of our press work, but just – you can get in touch with me directly too and we’ll try to provide whatever information we have. And if you come on Thursday, that would be great. You can see the (inaudible).

But thank you all, I appreciate it.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: Thank you for doing this. Thank you for joining us from New York as well.

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