News Human Rights

Live from Rio+20, Day Three: “The Voices of Women”

Vicky Markham

Today I participated in an extraordinary side-event on “Rio+20 and Women’s lives: A Cross-General Dialogue” at the Ford Foundation Pavilion. This event was very intimate, it drew you in, with women’s personal stories for Rio+20 and beyond.

See all our coverage of Rio+20 here.

The Rio+20 conference is now entering its last days, final negotiations have begun, and tensions are rising as the challenge to our issues is acute. There’ve been demonstrations, heightened advocacy, and frustration:  while we know the issues of “women, reproductive health and environmentally sustainable development” are integrated in the real world (thus essential to achieving the goals of this Earth Summit),  coming away with anything less than them being central and overarching in the final Rio+20 document would be a major disappointment, and more.  Let’s see what the last days actually bring, things can still change.  Soon the Rio+20 outcome document will be finalized and all will be heading home. Participants here are tired, distances to each meeting venue is great, shuttle-busing from one end of the city to the next. Though it’s not a total hardship, we are in Rio de Janeiro after all, beaches, palms, coastline, and the gracious Brazilian hosts.

Today I participated in an extraordinary side-event on “Rio+20 and Women’s lives: A Cross-General Dialogue” at the Ford Foundation Pavilion, co-organized by Climate Wise Women, my own organization,  Center for Environment and Population (CEP), and Columbia University’s Coalition for Sustainable Development.

This event was very intimate, it drew you in, with women’s personal stories for Rio+20 and beyond.  It featured six outstanding global women activists of different generations (from Uganda, Nigeria, Cook Islands, Mississippi/US, Philippines, and Brazil) who shared their colorful personal narratives to help us understand the cross-cutting impacts of climate change and other environmental issues on their lives.  In conversation they discussed the importance of women’s empowerment and reproductive health, and new, innovative connections among women of all ages for practical implementation of the Rio+20 outcome and beyond.   

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We were honored by the attendance of two outstanding global leaders on these issues, Nilcéa Freire, Ford Foundation’s Brazil Representative and gender expert, and the Honorable Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and President of the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice (MRFCJ). Tracy Mann, Director of Climate Wise Women (CW2) moderated, and guest speakers included: Ulamila Kurai Wragg, Executive Director, Pacific Gender Coalition, Rarotonga, Cook Islands; Constance Okollet, Chairperson, Osukuru United Women’s Network, Tororo, Uganda; Sharon Hanshaw, Director, Coastal Women For Change (CWC), Biloxi, Mississippi, USA; Esperanza Garcia, Co-Founder, International Youth Council, President of Philippine Youth Climate Movement and youth leader at the Columbia University’s Coalition for Sustainable Development; Esther Kelechi Agbarakwe, Nigeria, Visiting Advocacy Fellow with Population Action International (PAI) in Washington DC and a member of the “Elders+Youngers” Initiative of The Elders around Rio+20, and; Ana Paula Sciammarella, Human Rights Attorney and Member of the Network of Brazilian Women.

Tracy Mann set the scene,  emphasizing the importance of integrating formal, high-level, international negotiations like Rio+20 with the compelling personal stories of women who experience environmental impacts like climate change in their own villages and communities around the world.  She pointed out how older can teach young, and young can teach older, a theme of today’s event. As each of the women’s stories unfolded I felt like I was sitting around a campfire on a Pacific Cook Island beach or Ugandan village thatched meeting house…the women themselves were colorful in their bright gold, shocking pink, and bronze fabrics, Pacific Island and African prints, and their stories were even more so.

I felt like I was with family – my mother, grandmother or younger extended-family female member – telling me of their life’s experiences and challenges in some exotic setting, and how they personally felt about the issues now being debated at the seemingly more remote, formal Rio+20 negotiations down the road.  While these issues on the surface may seem disparate, they showed us they are not, but very much intertwined in daily life on a Pacific Island coastal village, African farming village, or American town, and that all our lives are acutely affected by global negotiations like Rio+20.  

Sharon Hanshaw, an American-south activist who lost her home during Hurricane Katrina, pointed out, “We ‘Climate Wise Women’, and all of us here, are demographically distant, but so alike” and described how her life changed since the storm, prompting her to organize and legitimize local women for a say in decisions about how climate change affects her family and community.  

She reflected on several themes the group collectively shared:

  • “Climate change has brought us women activists together, it’s our commonality for action because although demographically different, we found we are so alike.”
  • “We didn’t know that what was happening to us – the severe storms, the drought, the flooding, the change in seasonality – was actually climate change. Now we know, we are more informed about the issues, and we’ve organized to do something about it.”
  • “We used to call it weather, storms, now we know to call it climate change.”
  • “We are all one voice to change how we think about green space, and women’s equality, they go hand in hand. We know it, now we want our leaders and negotiators to know it. We are leaders too, we deserve a legitimate place at the decision-making table.”

Constance Okollet, a self-described peasant farmer from Uganda was resplendent in her opulent yellow dress, and her calm and story-telling drew you in, “Come to me, I have stories to tell” made one want to spend the day doing just that.  She talked about the stark difference between the Uganda village of her youth with distinct seasons, dense vegetation and abundant water and animals, to now, where there were no more seasons, and the plants, animals and water are sparse, gone, or far afield.  She learned that what she was experiencing for the most part was due to climate-change induced severe weather, the extremes of flooding and prolonged drought.  She decided to do something about these changes and became a grassroots women’s organizer in her village because, she said, “Climate change is gambling with agriculture, our main source of food and income, and causing spread of diseases like cholera and malaria…Our vulnerable communities need a voice, and I am the voice.”

The Honorable Mary Robinson’s message was powerful, pointing out that women’s stories like those heard today should be at the core of UN debates, such as Rio+20.  She said, “It is essential that these women’s voices come out, be part of the UN debates. They put a human face to climate change, the face of climate change is a peasant farmer from Uganda, or a slum dweller in Brazil.  Climate change is hurting our poorest communities, our most vulnerable, and they are not responsible for climate change. Those most affected are not responsible yet bearing the brunt of its impacts. She had two messages here at Rio+20: we need to come at this from a human rights issue, and these issues of importance to women don’t get raised, they need a critical mass of women who come together. That’s why this group of Climate Wise Women and those like them are critical.”

Mrs. Robinson closed by stating that, “We also need women’s leadership on climate justice, and there needs to be a connection between the two, the women leaders at the UN and as heads of state, and the rural women and villagers, so they form a dialogue and input into global decisions about sustainable development, women’s empowerment, and reproductive health.  This connection is essential to bring the reality to this Rio+20 debate, and beyond.”

Esperanza Garcia and Ana Paula Sciammarella both eloquently represented the youth perspective, showing how the younger generation was concerned and highly organized from the local to global levels, for the future, and for their children.  They shook us to attention with their energy, passion and strong messages on involving youth in broader global sustainable development processes.  Ana Paula also discussed the difficulties of displacement faced by Rio favela women by climatic events, and the need for community and a shared platform for women’s voices in the society.

Ulamila Kurai Wragg relayed the Pacific Islands perspective, as sea level rise will likely render them refugees from their small island states.  In response, she mobilized local women and formed the Pacific Gender Coalition to document their perspective, and advocate on behalf of grassroots women in the Pacific region and to the rest of the world. She stressed the traditional gender-based roles in her Cook Islands and Fiji, how their livelihoods rely on the oceans as fishermen and women, and that her peoples’ lives are at stake.  She said, “Whatever happens with climate-caused sea level rise, we have to live with it, probably move from our homes, and I want to tell our perspective.”

Ulah stressed how a formal opportunity and network through organizations like CW2 and others like them was critical, because it helped bring attention to the many women and girls who have important stories to tell and knowledge to impart.  “There are many like me,” she said, “With unheard voices, their views are important to how we govern and treat our natural resources.  And reproductive health is a big part of it, the balance of people and the oceans, the natural environment, it has to be kept. The UN process has to value the gender and traditional-based knowledge, if not, that is a strong sign that something is wrong, it does not reflect the way life really is.”

Esther Kelechi Agbarakwe, a youth peer-advocate from Nigeria, became involved because she wanted to become empowered to do something not only in her own country, but on a global scale.  She sees the strong connection between the natural environment and health issues such as reproductive health (RH) and rights, wants to advocate on addressing this connection. She said she was disappointed that RH and rights was not included in the Rio+20 document, and was meeting with country delegates and doing social media around these issues here in Rio. She’s also working with MRFCJ on inter-generational perspectives, bringing home the importance of cross pollination between young and older women, one learning from the other, and working as a team to achieve environmental sustainability and reproductive rights.

She told the BBC yesterday ,“We are more impacted than ever by the effects of climate change in all our lives, and as part of this, we also need access to reproductive health and have reproductive rights, because that provides us with choices and opportunities in our lives.  It’s all connected.”

Nilcéa Freire, of the Ford Foundation in Brazil, was compelling with a story about her 3 year old granddaughter.  She wanted to come to Rio+20 to “see the indigenous people”, and she’s learning about the environment and recycling at school.  Nilcéa said her granddaughter has many opportunities, yet that wasn’t true for girls in the Rio favelas, or the slums of South Africa or Pacific Islands. “We can’t predict the destinies for these girls in particular”, she stated, “Because we are not doing enough to include girls and women in the political power of the planet. When we waste more than half of the people of the planet, by not involving women and girls, we waste our future. That’s why we all need to work on gender-based issues, to increase these voices.”  

Nilcéa’ s closing thoughts left us with a charge:  “By Rio+40, will my granddaughter be able to say ‘We are grateful to our own grandmothers who did a good job for us at Rio+20’ – but will she able to say that?” I for one was not at all sure.

Tomorrow I will blog about a side-event on “The Demographic Dividend and Sustainable Development” co-organized by the US Agency for International Development, Aspen Institute’s Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health, and CEP, and look at next steps, including the UK DFID/Gates Foundation’s London Family Planning Summit in July and beyond.  Stay tuned…

Commentary Sexuality

Black Trans Liberation Tuesday Must Become an Annual Observance

Raquel Willis

As long as trans people—many of them Black trans women—continue to be murdered, there will be a need to commemorate their lives, work to prevent more deaths, and uplift Black trans activism.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

This week marks one year since Black transgender activists in the United States organized Black Trans Liberation Tuesday. Held on Tuesday, August 25, the national day of action publicized Black trans experiences and memorialized 18 trans women, predominantly trans women of color, who had been murdered by this time last year.

In conjunction with the Black Lives Matter network, the effort built upon an earlier Trans Liberation Tuesday observance created by Bay Area organizations TGI Justice Project and Taja’s Coalition to recognize the fatal stabbing of 36-year-old trans Latina woman Taja DeJesus in February 2015.

Black Trans Liberation Tuesday should become an annual observance because transphobic violence and discrimination aren’t going to dissipate with one-off occurrences. I propose that Black Trans Liberation Tuesday fall on the fourth Tuesday of August to coincide with the first observance and also the August 24 birthday of the late Black trans activist Marsha P. Johnson.

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There is a continuing need to pay specific attention to Black transgender issues, and the larger Black community must be pushed to stand in solidarity with us. Last year, Black trans activists, the Black Lives Matter network, and GetEQUAL collaborated on a blueprint of what collective support looks like, discussions that led to Black Trans Liberation Tuesday.

“Patrisse Cullors [a co-founder of Black Lives Matter] had been in talks on ways to support Black trans women who had been organizing around various murders,” said Black Lives Matter Organizing Coordinator Elle Hearns of Washington, D.C. “At that time, Black trans folks had been experiencing erasure from the movement and a lack of support from cis people that we’d been in solidarity with who hadn’t reciprocated that support.”

This erasure speaks to a long history of Black LGBTQ activism going underrecognized in both the civil rights and early LGBTQ liberation movements. Many civil rights leaders bought into the idea that influential Black gay activist Bayard Rustin was unfit to be a leader simply because he had relationships with men, though he organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Johnson, who is often credited with kicking off the 1969 Stonewall riots with other trans and gender-nonconforming people of color, fought tirelessly for LGBTQ rights. She and other trans activists of color lived in poverty and danger (Johnson was found dead under suspicious circumstances in July 1992), while the white mainstream gay elite were able to demand acceptance from society. Just last year, Stonewall, a movie chronicling the riots, was released with a whitewashed retelling that centered a white, cisgender gay male protagonist.

The Black Lives Matter network has made an intentional effort to avoid the pitfalls of those earlier movements.

“Our movement has been intersectional in ways that help all people gain liberation whether they see it or not. It became a major element of the network vision and how it was seeing itself in the Black liberation movement,” Hearns said. “There was no way to discuss police brutality without discussing structural violence affecting Black lives, in general”—and that includes Black trans lives.

Despite a greater mainstream visibility for LGBTQ issues in general, Black LGBTQ issues have not taken the forefront in Black freedom struggles. When a Black cisgender heterosexual man is killed, his name trends on social media feeds and is in the headlines, but Black trans women don’t see the same importance placed on their lives.

According to a 2015 report by the Anti-Violence Project, a group dedicated to ending anti-LGBTQ and HIV-affected community violence, trans women of color account for 54 percent of all anti-LGBTQ homicides. Despite increased awareness, with at least 20 transgender people murdered since the beginning of this year, it seems things haven’t really changed at all since Black Trans Liberation Tuesday.

“There are many issues at hand when talking about Black trans issues, particularly in the South. There’s a lack of infrastructure and support in the nonprofit sector, but also within health care and other systems. Staffs at LGBTQ organizations are underfunded when it comes to explicitly reaching the trans community,” said Micky Bradford, the Atlanta-based regional organizer for TLC@SONG. “The space between towns can harbor isolation from each other, making it more difficult to build up community organizing, coalitions, and culture.”

The marginalization that Black trans people face comes from both the broader society and the Black community. Fighting white supremacy is a full-time job, and some activists within the Black Lives Matter movement see homophobia and transphobia as muddying the fight for Black liberation.

“I think we have a very special relationship with gender and gender violence to all Black people,” said Aaryn Lang, a New York City-based Black trans activist. “There’s a special type of trauma that Black people inflict on Black trans people because of how strict the box of gender and space of gender expression has been to move in for Black people. In the future of the movement, I see more people trusting that trans folks have a vision that’s as diverse as blackness is.”

But even within that diversity, Black trans people are often overlooked in movement spaces due to anti-Blackness in mainstream LGBTQ circles and transphobia in Black circles. Further, many Black trans people aren’t in the position to put energy into movement work because they are simply trying to survive and find basic resources. This can create a disconnect between various sections of the Black trans community.

Janetta Johnson, executive director of TGI Justice Project in San Francisco, thinks the solution is twofold: increased Black trans involvement and leadership in activism spaces, and more facilitated conversations between Black cis and trans people.

“I think a certain part of the transgender community kind of blocks all of this stuff out. We are saying we need you to come through this process and see how we can create strength in numbers. We need to bring in other trans people not involved in the movement,” she said. “We need to create a space where we can share views and strategies and experiences.”

Those conversations must be an ongoing process until the killings of Black trans women like Rae’Lynn Thomas, Dee Whigham, and Skye Mockabee stop.

“As we commemorate this year, we remember who and why we organized Black Trans Liberation Tuesday last year. It’s important we realize that Black trans lives are still being affected in ways that everyday people don’t realize,” Hearns said. “We must understand why movements exist and why people take extreme action to continuously interrupt the system that will gladly forget them.”

Culture & Conversation Media

Filmmaker Tracy Droz Tragos Centers Abortion Stories in New Documentary

Renee Bracey Sherman

The film arrives at a time when personal stories are center stage in the national conversation about abortion, including in the most recent Supreme Court decision, and rightly so. The people who actually have and provide abortions should be driving the narrative, not misinformation and political rhetoric.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

A new film by producer and director Tracy Droz Tragos, Abortion: Stories Women Tell, profiles several Missouri residents who are forced to drive across the Mississippi River into Illinois for abortion care.

The 93-minute film features interviews with over 20 women who have had or are having abortions, most of whom are Missouri residents traveling to the Hope Clinic in Granite City, Illinois, which is located about 15 minutes from downtown St. Louis.

Like Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming, Missouri has only one abortion clinic in the entire state.

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The women share their experiences, painting a more nuanced picture that shows why one in three women of reproductive age often seek abortion care in the United States.

The film arrives at a time when personal stories are center stage in the national conversation about abortion, including in the most recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, and rightly so. The people who actually have and provide abortions should be driving the narrative, not misinformation and political rhetoric. But while I commend recent efforts by filmmakers like Droz Tragos and others to center abortion stories in their projects, these creators still have far to go when it comes to presenting a truly diverse cadre of storytellers if they really want to shift the conversation around abortion and break down reproductive stigma.

In the wake of Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law, which was at the heart of the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt Supreme Court case, Droz Tragos, a Missouri native, said in a press statement she felt compelled to document how her home state has been eroding access to reproductive health care. In total, Droz Tragos interviewed 81 people with a spectrum of experiences to show viewers a fuller picture of the barriersincluding legislation and stigmathat affect people seeking abortion care.

Similar to HBO documentaries about abortion that have come before it—including 12th & Delaware and Abortion: Desperate ChoicesAbortion: Stories Women Tell involves short interviews with women who are having and have had abortions, conversations with the staff of the Hope Clinic about why they do the work they do, interviews with local anti-choice organizers, and footage of anti-choice protesters shouting at patients, along with beautiful shots of the Midwest landscape and the Mississippi River as patients make road trips to appointments. There are scenes of clinic escorts holding their ground as anti-choice protesters yell Bible passages and obscenities at them. One older clinic escort carries a copy of Living in the Crosshairs as a protester follows her to her car, shouting. The escort later shares her abortion story.

One of the main storytellers, Amie, is a white 30-year-old divorced mother of two living in Boonville, Missouri. She travels over 100 miles each way to the Hope Clinic, and the film chronicles her experience in getting an abortion and follow-up care. Almost two-thirds of people seeking abortions, like Amie, are already a parent. Amie says that the economic challenges of raising her other children make continuing the pregnancy nearly impossible. She describes being physically unable to carry a baby and work her 70 to 90 hours a week. Like many of the storytellers in the film, Amie talks about the internalized stigma she’s feeling, the lack of support she has from loved ones, and the fear of family members finding out. She’s resilient and determined; a powerful voice.

The film also follows Kathy, an anti-choice activist from Bloomfield, Missouri, who says she was “almost aborted,” and that she found her calling in the anti-choice movement when she noticed “Anne” in the middle of the name “Planned Parenthood.” Anne is Kathy’s middle name.

“OK Lord, are you telling me that I need to get in the middle of this?” she recalls thinking.

The filmmakers interview the staff of the Hope Clinic, including Dr. Erin King, a pregnant abortion provider who moved from Chicago to Granite City to provide care and who deals with the all-too-common protesting of her home and workplace. They speak to Barb, a talkative nurse who had an abortion 40 years earlier because her nursing school wouldn’t have let her finish her degree while she was pregnant. And Chi Chi, a security guard at the Hope Clinic who is shown talking back to the protesters judging patients as they walk into the clinic, also shares her abortion story later in the film. These stories remind us that people who have abortions are on the frontlines of this work, fighting to defend access to care.

To address the full spectrum of pregnancy experiences, the film also features the stories of a few who, for various reasons, placed their children for adoption or continued to parent. While the filmmakers interview Alexis, a pregnant Black high school student whose mother died when she was 8 years old, classmates can be heard in the distance tormenting her, asking if she’s on the MTV reality show 16 and Pregnant. She’s visibly distraught and crying, illustrating the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” conundrum women of color experiencing unintended pregnancy often face.

Te’Aundra, another young Black woman, shares her story of becoming pregnant just as she received a college basketball scholarship. She was forced to turn down the scholarship and sought an adoption, but the adoption agency refused to help her since the child’s father wouldn’t agree to it. She says she would have had an abortion if she could start over again.

While anti-choice rhetoric has conflated adoption as the automatic abortion alternative, research has shown that most seeking adoption are personally debating between adoption and parenting. This is illustrated in Janet’s story, a woman with a drug addiction who was raising one child with her partner, but wasn’t able to raise a second, so she sought an adoption. These stories are examples of the many societal systems failing those who choose adoption or students raising families, in addition to those fighting barriers to abortion access.

At times, the film feels repetitive and disjointed, but the stories are powerful. The range of experiences and reasons for having an abortion (or seeking adoption) bring to life the data points too often ignored by politicians and the media: everything from economic instability and fetal health, to domestic violence and desire to finish an education. The majority of abortion stories featured were shared by those who already had children. Their stories had a recurring theme of loneliness and lack of support from their loved ones and friends at a time when they needed it. Research has shown that 66 percent of people who have abortions tend to only tell 1.24 people about their experience, leaving them keeping a secret for fear of judgment and shame.

While many cite financial issues when paying for abortions or as the reason for not continuing the pregnancy, the film doesn’t go in depth about how the patients come to pay for their abortions—which is something my employer, the National Network for Abortion Funds (NNAF), directly addresses—or the systemic issues that created their financial situations.

However, it brings to light the hypocrisy of our nation, where the invisible hand of our society’s lack of respect for pregnant people and working parents can force people to make pregnancy decisions based on economic situations rather than a desire to be pregnant or parent.

“I’m not just doing this for me” is a common phrase when citing having an abortion for existing or future children.

Overall, the film is moving simply because abortion stories are moving, especially for audiences who don’t have the opportunity to have someone share their abortion story with them personally. I have been sharing my abortion story for five years and hearing someone share their story with me always feels like a gift. I heard parts of my own story in those shared; however, I felt underrepresented in this film that took place partly in my home state of Illinois. While people of color are present in the film in different capacities, a racial analysis around the issues covered in the film is non-existent.

Race is a huge factor when it comes to access to contraception and reproductive health care; over 60 percent of people who have abortions are people of color. Yet, it took 40 minutes for a person of color to share an abortion story. It seemed that five people of color’s abortion stories were shown out of the over 20 stories, but without actual demographic data, I cannot confirm how all the film’s storytellers identify racially. (HBO was not able to provide the demographic data of the storytellers featured in the film by press time.)

It’s true that racism mixed with sexism and abortion stigma make it more difficult for people of color to speak openly about their abortion stories, but continued lack of visual representation perpetuates that cycle. At a time when abortion storytellers themselves, like those of NNAF’s We Testify program, are trying to make more visible a multitude of identities based on race, sexuality, immigration status, ability, and economic status, it’s difficult to give a ringing endorsement of a film that minimizes our stories and relegates us to the second half of a film, or in the cases of some of these identities, nowhere at all. When will we become the central characters that reality and data show that we are?

In July, at the progressive conference Netroots Nation, the film was screened followed by an all-white panel discussion. I remember feeling frustrated at the time, both because of the lack of people of color on the panel and because I had planned on seeing the film before learning about a march led by activists from Hands Up United and the Organization for Black Struggle. There was a moment in which I felt like I had to choose between my Blackness and my abortion experience. I chose my Black womanhood and marched with local activists, who under the Black Lives Matter banner have centered intersectionality. My hope is that soon I won’t have to make these decisions in the fight for abortion rights; a fight where people of color are the backbone whether we’re featured prominently in films or not.

The film highlights the violent rhetoric anti-choice protesters use to demean those seeking abortions, but doesn’t dissect the deeply racist and abhorrent comments, often hurled at patients of color by older white protesters. These racist and sexist comments are what fuel much of the stigma that allows discriminatory laws, such as those banning so-called race- and sex-selective abortions, to flourish.

As I finished the documentary, I remembered a quote Chelsea, a white Christian woman who chose an abortion when her baby’s skull stopped developing above the eyes, said: “Knowing you’re not alone is the most important thing.”

In her case, her pastor supported her and her husband’s decision and prayed over them at the church. She seemed at peace with her decision to seek abortion because she had the support system she desired. Perhaps upon seeing the film, some will realize that all pregnancy decisions can be quite isolating and lonely, and we should show each other a bit more compassion when making them.

My hope is that the film reaches others who’ve had abortions and reminds them that they aren’t alone, whether they see themselves truly represented or not. That we who choose abortion are normal, loved, and supported. And that’s the main point of the film, isn’t it?

Abortion: Stories Women Tell is available in theaters in select cities and will be available on HBO in 2017.

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