Acts of Disappearance – Part 1

I am not meant be alive. I am not meant to be here, living and breathing. I was not meant to survive. I am a lowly Indian girlchild who became a woman, that in itself is a kind of miracle. This is not hyperbole. In Punjab, where I was born, there is a chronic lack of women due to sex selection foeticide. It bears repeating; in the land where I was born, there is a genocide taking place against girls from the moment that they are inside the womb.

A distinction must be made between those who prescribe to caste and identify as high caste (and the equivilent in class in the west) and those who are seen as ‘low’caste or Dalit – the girls conceived in either have very different experiences and opportunities to live. Not all ‘South Asians’ are equal. We rarely hear unprivileged voices from the Indian sub continent and of course, we can’t hear from women who are no longer alive.

Let me make clear that my experience is not free licience to assume that all brown girls have the same experience. It is reductive to think that misogyny is the preserve of one culture or community. I assert that it is a global phenomenon that changes in methodology, force and subtlety depending on the lottery of where you are born. That said, every breath I take is a victory.

As I write this Paolo Nuttini plays on the radio. His lyric “It was in love I was created…” strikes a cord. I was not born out of love. I was born in desperation. I was born in fear, anxiety and worry. My birth, like many girl infants was not a celebratory event. The usual mathai that is distributed to family, friends and neighbours when a boy is born, did not mark my arrival. My mother, eager to be valued, appreciated and earn her place in her in-laws family was desperate to have a boy. She would have to wait a decade and several unvalued daughters later, until that would finally happen.

The BBC news website reports that “India’s… census shows a serious decline in the number of girls under the age of seven – activists fear eight million female foetuses may have been aborted in the past decade … India’s ratio of young girls to boys is one of the worst in the world after China. Many factors come into play to explain this: infanticide, abuse and neglect of girl children … Sabu George, India’s best-known campaigner on the issue, says the government has so far shown little determination to stop the practices. Until 30 years ago, he says, India’s sex ratio was “reasonable”. Then in 1974, Delhi’s prestigious All India Institute of Medical Sciences came out with a study which said sex-determination tests were a boon for Indian women. It said they no longer needed to produce endless children to have the right number of sons, and it encouraged the determination and elimination of female foetuses as an effective tool of population control. “By late 80s, every newspaper in Delhi was advertising for ultrasound sex determination,” said Mr George. “Clinics from Punjab were boasting that they had 10 years’ experience in eliminating girl children and inviting parents to come to them.” ”

Further testimony by Sabu M George to the US Congress is forthright and clear “It is a crime against women, a gender crime that has no parallel or or precedent in all of human history. More girls in India and China are eliminated every year than the number of girls born in US. Over the last decade, 6 million plus girls were eliminated before birth in India; this is more than the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust by the Nazis…Four plus decades of practice of sex selection have led to the emergence of forced polyandry; i.e., one woman being shared by several men in parts of Punjab, Haryana and Western UP. Violence against women has become worse in areas where sex selection has been extensive. Buying of women for marriage from other states has become an important reason for trafficking of women to North West India since 2000. In the coming decades, due to shortage of tens of millions of women, further progress in education and employment opportunities for millions of surviving women could possibly be affected; due to the increasing threat of violence against women inside homes and in public spaces…”

I was an avid reader as a child. My home had no books except for the Guru Granth Sahib which my mother would read prayers from daily. One of my childhood fantasies for my ‘grown up’ life, was to have shelves of books. My library card was a treasured item. I spent hours in Chorlton Public Library. It wasn’t just a place for reading, but a place of sanctuary. Somewhere I could exist unharried and lost in wordy worlds of my own making.

The Hindu newspaper reports that in Punjab, “Chandigarh, the city with the highest standards of living in the country, has a sex ratio of 777(girls):1,000(boys)… Examining the sex ratios at birth of second child makes it evident that son preference is affecting family-building strategies. The sex ratio of last births (number of females born per 1,000 males when the first child is a female ) ranges from a low of 504 in Punjab, to 540 in Haryana, and 572 in Himachal Pradesh indicating a regional spread … Kamaljeet Gill, Professor of Economics at Punjabi University, said: “Even today, [the] birth of a girl child is viewed as a bad investment for future but the poor still find the cost of raising a child to be nominal with respect to the income that the child might generate and also they cannot afford the cost of tests and abortion. The reform needs to begin with the prosperous, educated class which abort a female child due to their narrow patriarchal view, where sons are considered to be the only hope of old age and even after life.”

This disparity between sexes is made possible through technology. State of the art ultrasound machines can be found across India from small rooms in villages to city hospitals. These machines do not originate from India but have in fact been imported into the country. The BBC reports that as of 2011 “there are 40,000 registered ultrasound clinics in the country, and many more exist without any record.” Sabu George says “The role of American ultrasound companies like GE, Sonosite is regrettable. In 2001, GE submitted to the Indian Supreme Court the list of 6000 clinics to whom they sold ultrasound machines in the previous 5 years. The analysis of this data revealed that wherever GE had sold the most machines, those areas had the least girls born!”

My love of reading was tolerated during my infant years but as I reached prepubescence, a marked shift happened. The sight of my reading would irritate my parents, particularly my father. I would take to hiding in the bathroom and reading. I’d leave my book under the dirty laundry basket. At night I would position myself at the edge of my the bed I shared with my siblings, to read by street light. I had eclectic tastes and devoured everything from poetry, classics to popular fiction like Flowers in the Attic, Jilly Cooper and Harold Robins, which were contraband items on my child library ticket. I had persuaded one of the librarians that I was taking the book out for my mother. She kindly helped by organising a ticket for my Mother which I would then use for my forays into the adult section of the library. My parents took years to find out and by eleven years old I felt I had managed to salvage quite an education despite the odds set against me.

In an interview with The Hindu newspaper, a Dr. Kaur discussed the impact of widely available foetal sonography: “Unchecked technology combined with affordability has made the practice a norm, and high and middle-income groups have completely shifted to female foeticide as a more ‘sanitary option’ and female infanticide too is practised more in the form of abandoning few-days-old infants in bushes, public toilets, parks or garbage bins but the aim has not changed, no one wants to be son-less.”

Putting these findings in a global context, Nanditia Sakhia et al write in the Lancet that “Missing female births have increased worldwide, from near zero per year in the late 1970s, to about 1·6 million per year by 2005–10. Missing female births totalled around 30 million between 1980 and 2010, contributing to substantial deficits in the number of women. India accounts for almost half of global missing female births. Daughters in India face more discrimination than sons due to a combination of socio-economic, cultural, and historical factors. Selective abortion of female fetuses occurs within this context… ”

At some point during primary school my teacher had suggested that I would be a good candidate for the eleven plus and spoke to my mother about the possibility of engaging a private tutor to help me sit the exam. My mother relayed the information to my father who said that I could sit the exam but he wasn’t going to pay for a tutor. I remember turning up at the local Grammar School with it’s impressive dark wood clad walls and high ceilings. I was shown to my place and when the time came to turn the paper over I was met with what looked like a set of riddles. My failure at the exam was held up by my father as more evidence of my uselessness and justification for his narrowing of my already small world. I like to think that I am the only girl in the world who fought with her father to own a dictionary, a book I was so proud of I carried it with me from home to home for years.

By the time I reached secondary school it was positively dangerous to be caught reading poetry or fiction. Text books were permissible but when I asked for money to buy literary texts for English I was refused. My father considered it a waste of money and commented out aloud – what’s the point of educating you? The unsaid rationale hung loudly in the air – I was not worth educating or investing in because I was a girl and I would be married. I was a girl and I was a burden, a daughter who was a liability until she was passed onto another man, who would be paid a dowry for the imposition. A basic education was all I deserved as a girl. I was lucky that I was living in a country that offered free education to all children.

In some cultures the misogyny and suspicion around women and girls is closer to the surface, more easily identified as opposed to the covert misogyny at play in the West and the apparent freedom and equality we imagine ourselves to value here. We like to consider ourselves progressive, we ‘liberate’ and ‘educate’ and then abandon the women of Afghanistan for example. All at the whims and mercy of white men in power.

In some parts of the world it takes two men to corroborate a woman’s testimony (lest she lie or be forgetful). In some cultures it is preferred that a woman remain submissive and silent. (What better way to achieve that by not allowing her to exist?). The Bible states that “”Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.” First letter to the Corinthians. “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” First letter to Timothy. In Islam the Surah al-Baqarah states that “if two men be not available, then one man and two women, of such as you like as witnesses, so that if either of the two women should be in danger of forgetting, the other may refresh her memory.” (Surah al-Baqarah, Ch:2: V.283)

India, like many places in the world, knows how to disappear girls and women. There is literal death and then there is erasure – a forced obliteration via erosion or sleight of hand. This is harder to pin down. Here, in the slippery West, here in the UK we have other ways of disappearing women. You can be assassinated without a drop of blood being spilled.

Here in the west, in the UK, we don’t crudely kill working class brown girls at birth but we do have other ways of ensuring that they don’t have a voice. That they fail to fulfil their potential. That they are discredited, cancelled and silenced. Here, there are other ways of keeping working class brown girls and women down. The disappearing doesn’t need to be dramatic. It can be prosaic. It can be ordinary. It can be attritional. It can be by stealth. It may be boring and irritating, particularly when you think it doesn’t affect you.

When I walk into the room as an adult, as a grown woman of working class Indian heritage, I am an anomaly. I am an apparition. I am extraordinary because everything was stacked up against me. I was never meant to survive. Metaphorically speaking, I’ve survived attempted murder multiple times. You have no idea what it took to get me here. What I have navigated and faced down to stand before you with the freedom to think, speak, create. With some level of autonomy over my conflicted body. You do not know what it took to claim the right to love and fuck anybody I choose. You can not imagine what it took to claim my right to speak of love or my right to physical pleasure. You may never know what it took to free myself of the mantle of imposed shame. The strength it takes to turn up again and again, despite being silenced, ignored, gaslit and more and take up space that white people and non working class women take for granted.

A study by Adanmu et al states that “Demographically, as many as 200 million women and girls around the world are missing according to the United Nations. Put simply, ‘missing women’ are those whom ceteris paribus should be alive, but are not.” The role that companies like GE and white, first/developed nations play in this genocide cannot be underplayed. It suits them to have less brown people in the world. Sonographic technologies in this context can be as effective as placing drugs and guns into a community.

All lives don’t matter, some lives don’t matter at all and some lives were never lived. Winter is coming. Beside me, urging me on, walk the millions of girls who never saw light of day, whose brilliance we will never know. Whose girlhood and womanhood we will never know. Of course I’d rather have other thoughts on my mind, other legacies to carry and other weights to bear. But my silent sisters and I deserve better, we demand better and we are coming.

You can follow Raman at:
Twitter: @MundairRaman
Instagram: @ramanmundair + @rmundair

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Comments (41)

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  1. Daniel Raphael says:

    The (major) problem with this otherwise excellent and rightly concerning article is that it equates abortion with murder. As much as I lament the real misogyny the author describes, that equation is one that must be firmly rejected. We in the US are not the only ones for whom rejecting that equation is a necessary component of defending the rights of women to control their own bodies. Is there irony here and paradox? There is–but along with that recognition, we must always be aware that, as the author again makes clear, this is substantially not a free choice of women. That is a further irony, and it is due entirely to the relentless force of misogyny and the theocratic fascism that has India in its grip.

    1. Raman Mundair says:

      Thank you for taking the time to comment. I don’t usually respond to comments but feel it’s important to clarify that I am not writing from a western perspective and that I absolutely stand for a woman’s right to choose. What I am referring to is not a choice being made but an act of misogyny being enacted. There is a difference.

      1. Raman Mundair says:

        To be clear. I am not writing about or questioning abortion. With respect, your insistence of reading my words as being part of the pro-life propaganda is reductive.

      2. Mons Meg says:

        It’s all very well saying that you’re not writing from a Western perspective, Raman, but sex-selective foeticide is ‘wrong’ for no other reason than it’s distinguishable as such within the context of our Western values; it isn’t ‘wrong’ within the context of those cultures that practise it (otherwise, it wouldn’t be part of their practice – it would be tabu, like it is in the West).

        In judging the practice to be ‘wrong’, you’re enacting the ‘mind’ of the West from within the context of the value systems with which it has colonised the ‘mind’ of others the world over through its globalisation; whatever you might think, you’re judging and writing from a Western/colonial perspective.

        1. Susan Macdiarmid says:

          Buddhism first developed in India.

          1. Mons Meg says:


        2. David B says:

          It is taboo in India. Sex-determining pre-natal ultrasounds are illegal.

          1. Mons Meg says:

            It might be illegal, David, but not tabu. According to Raman, it’s a widespread practice in Punjab; part of the culture there.

          2. David B says:

            If you think something can’t be both widespread and taboo at the same time, I suggest you haven’t really looked into this very much

          3. Mons Meg says:

            Can it? Can a practice be culturally prohibited and culturally widespread at the same time?

            It can’t be much of a tabu if the practice it forbids in a culture remains widespread in that culture nonetheless.

            Anyway: maybe sex-determining pre-natal ultrasounds were made illegal in an attempt to stamp out the cultural practice of sex-selective foeticide, and not because the practice was tabu.

          4. David B says:

            Yes, I think it can. Something which everyone knows is widespread but which no one admits to or speaks about publicly, for fear of being condemned or ostracised in their society.

            And yes – I’m certain sex-determining ultrasounds were made illegal to prevent female foeticide. I don’t think it follows that female foeticide is a cultural practice – rather that it is the tragic consequence of other cultural practices such as dowries and ingrained patriarchal behaviour.

          5. Mons Meg says:

            My mistake, David. I didn’t know that the practice of sex-selective foeticide leads to social condemnation and ostracism in Punjab. That’s not the impression Raman gave.

          6. Mons Meg says:

            And surely a practice that is the consequence of other cultural practices is still a cultural practice.

          7. David B says:

            I genuinely don’t know about Punjab but from what several friends from Uttar Pradesh have told me in the past, it is culturally taboo in their local (in this case Hindu) society. It would be totally haram in Islam. I’d be surprised if a nearby northern Indian state like Punjab is that different.

            As for cultural practices vs the consequences of cultural practices, I can think of loads of examples but they’re all quite flippant and I’m not going to compare female foeticide to any of them for fear of diluting what is a powerful and vital article by Raman.

            Cheers for the chat Meg.

        3. John Learmonth says:

          Mons meg,

          ‘Western values’ are founded on the belief systems of Judeo-Christianity, as such these values are universal regardless of whether you beleive in them or not.

          1. Mons Meg says:

            Indeed, they are, John. And that’s precisely why they’re a local rather than a universal phenomenon. They’re local to Judeo-Christian culture; other values are available.

        4. John Learmonth says:

          Mons meg,

          ‘Other values are available’. Indeed they are and always have been. But surely some ‘values’ are ‘better’ than others although as you are a self proclaimed Marxist human ‘values’ are meaningless. (Marx wasn’t a moralist which is why Marxist regimes are soaked in blood as Marx put no value on human life). Based on your theory we are all slaves to the socio-economic conditions in which we find ourselves and free will is a an illusion. I would beg to disagree and some values are better than others and most of these values are derived from the Judeo-Christian tradition which advocates personal responsibilty for your actions above all else.

          1. Mons Meg says:

            Some values might indeed be better than others; my problem is that, since I’ve no access to any ‘Archimedean point’ outside of all value systems, I’ve no idea how I could measure this. Maybe you can enlighten me as to how you do it.

            Values are by no means meaningless; and while Marx might not have been a moralist, he did have a theory of value by which he sought to explain how, why, and to what degree we value things, which is the subject matter of ethics.

            Marxian ethics isn’t oriented towards some transcendent ‘realm of values’, but understands all values and value systems (aesthetics, moralities, religions) in strictly anthropological terms, as components of social practice. Basically, Marx argues that all value systems are ideological expressions of the relations we enter into to produce our means of subsistence; that is, they reflect the actually existing interpersonal (value) relations that comprise our day-to-day life experience, rather than some timeless and immutable ideals that somehow transcend our material lives. It’s in this social construction – humanity’s self-creation in and through the work in which we engage to meet our material needs – that the meaning of our values and value systems consists and from which their content derives; not from any world-transcendent source or divine fiat.

            And, yes, we’re constructed by the economic conditions in which we find ourselves; that’s why our values and value systems vary from age to age and place to place. And, yes, Marxian ethics is based on a metaphysics that’s incompatible with the metaphysical doctrine of free will or ‘uncaused events’/’arbitrariness’ (there are several deterministic theories of value within the Judeo-Christian tradition which are incompatible with the doctrine of free will; Marxism is only one of them). I can live with that. It makes me, personally, no less responsible or answerable to society for my actions in the context of its value system.

        5. John Learmonth says:

          I’ve absolutely no idea what your on about but thankfully we live in a society founded on Judeo-Christian principles where we can agree to disagree without resorting to killing each other………unlike in Marxist regimes.
          Let us be grateful for our shared heritage and I’m sure the author of the article is also hugely appreciative of the fact the she lives in an open tolerant society. What has the West ever done for us……!!!

          1. Mons Meg says:

            Ah, those will be the same Judeo-Christian principles that have produced crusades, inquisitions, pogroms, colonisation, misogyny, and other action towards the extermination of Others. Or are you talking about different Judeo-Christian principles?

            And didn’t Marxism itself spring from the Judeo-Christian tradition? What alternative historical reality did it come from?

        6. John Learmonth says:

          They were suffering from ‘false consciouness’
          Although to be fair thats a Leninist not a Marxist principle.

          1. Mons Meg says:

            It’s neither.

            The first treatment of false consciousness as a theoretical concept occurred in History and Class Consciousness (1923) by the Hungarian philosopher and literary critic György Lukács, one of the founders of Western Marxism, a dissident interpretive tradition that departed from the Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy of the Soviet Union. The concept was further developed later in the 20th century by Western Marxists, such as Herbert Marcuse and Henri Lefebvre, who traced it retrospectively back to Marx and thence to Hegel.

            Since the late 20th century and the supersession of class politics by identity politics, the concept has been utilised mainly in studies of oppression on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and race. Basically, false consciousness denotes forms of self-understanding that ‘naturalise’ or otherwise legitimise the existence of social inequalities.

  2. Tom Ultuous says:

    Great article Raman. I knew nothing of this. So much for the “free” “UK” press.

  3. Daniel Raphael says:

    I should have added, by way of clarifying and underlining the equation of abortion = murder, that a foetus is *never* a person, a human being, a girl or a boy. Therefore, aborting a foetus is never “eliminating” anyone. It is precisely this false equivalence that is the cornerstone of the misnamed “Right to Life” movement ythreatening a woman’s right to abortion and control of her own body.

    1. Susan Macdiarmid says:

      But a foetus CAN be female. A heartbreaking and frightening truth is in this article and to focus on the act of abortion is to miss the whole point.

  4. Tabassum Niamat says:

    What a truly heartbreaking article, yet out of that horror you are here! How many fetuses were denied their existence because somewhere down the line girl/women were seen as a burden. Utterly horrifying statistics! Abortion has to be a personal choice but in this instance abortion was never a choice but society driving poor women to abort females that would have been seen as a drain on family recourses. So much to take away from this but all the power to you Raman! Keep soaring.

  5. Squigglypen says:

    Glad you survived Raman.
    Do you think it has occurred to the idiots that dispose of female babies that men don’t carry babies and therefore your nation and others that perpetrate this insanity will perish eventually. Already in parts of India the proportion of men to women has drastically changed and now there are kidnappings and battles to get women for their village..
    The most horrendous picture I ever saw was a beautiful female baby dumped in the gutter to die with people walking casually by…China.
    I don’t say foetus..these are fully formed living female babies gone the full term then tossed in the bushes to die.( or gutter)
    You didn’t know Tom! Don’t blame the press. Open your eyes to the way women and girls are treated EVERYWHERE..
    EVERYDAY…. Whew! bet you’re glad you were born male….

  6. Gordon Kerr says:

    Thank you for sharing. I taught ethics to university students in China for almost 20 years and always tried to promote study and discourse on the missing millions of girls and widespread practice of female infanticide.. It was politically sensitive of course because off the single child policy enforced for many decades, but so few of my colleagues or students showed any interest or awareness of this genocide.

    “The world of humanity has two wings—one is women and the other men,” wrote ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, “Not until both wings are equally developed can the bird fly. Should one wing remain weak, flight is impossible

  7. Chris Connolly* says:

    What a breathtaking article. I’m just sorry that anybody would attempt to lessen its impact by taking a magnifying glass to every word in an attempt to find some minor side-issue to argue about.

    Thank you, Raman, for educating us.

    1. Tom Ultuous says:

      Well put Chris.

  8. florian albert says:

    The author uses the word ‘genocide’ to describe the results of abortion as practised in India. Genocide is widely recognized as a word describing killing – mass killing.

    Yet, below the article, she defends abortion. It appears that the identical procedure is moral when it is done in the West but immoral, even genocidal, when done in India.

    1. David B says:

      If that’s how it appears to you then you’ve not understood the article properly

    2. J says:

      I don’t think we need to approach what the author is saying in such a zero sum way.

      She’s writing from within and about her own culture, (absolutely not with a “western gaze” as someone above commented. You don’t have to accept everything as it is right now to be part of a culture. In fact the exact people who should be critiquing and driving change are those who know it best) and is making the very important point that within an incredibly patriarchal structure, under social, cultural, familial and economic pressure the idea that each individual is operating under a “free choice” in the moment is naive and upholds the status quo. Notably without blaming or judging individual women, she highlights the overall social processes and power structures that lead to far fewer women and girls being alive, and the ways in which those that are have a grim life! I read this article and felt no contradiction between that and a pro choice position. I imagine I’ll stand shoulder to shoulder with her on a pro choice demo, and I’ll be out when the march is for the women of Punjab as well!

  9. Badrane Mrani says:

    Wow ! That is a beautiful writing very needed to understand what happen ! Thank you for sharing it

  10. Fay Kennedy says:

    Thanks for this enlightening article. Another example of the patriarchal nightmare that has done so much damage to the female and more of this information needs to flourish. All credit to you for your courage for it’s never easy to speak from a social position at the bottom of the hierarchy.

  11. Stephen Cowley says:

    The argument here seems to be that there is nothing wrong with abortion, but only sex-selective abortion. But if the aborted child was “not a person”, why would it matter?

    I think we are deceiving ourselves here. Abortion is being tolerated as a means of capping the exploding demographics of the (former) third world. This is largely because first-world medicine has reduced child mortality. It would be better to restrict abortion and find other ways around the problem of finding demographic stability and hence economic sustainability. Abortion is morally debilitating.

    1. Mons Meg says:

      Abortion is always, by definition, ‘wrong’; but there are equally times when it’s morally permissible. It’s difficult to see how the circumstance that a foetus is identifiably ‘female’ rather than ‘male’ can be one of those times.

      We all know that it’s wrong to lie, but we also know that there are circumstances in which it’s morally permissible to lie. We all know that it’s wrong to steal, but there are equally circumstances in which it’s morally permissible to steal. It’s wrong to kill, but there are circumstances in which it’s morally permissible to kill. &etc. The trick in making moral judgements lies not in distinguishing what’s right and wrong – we’re all constructed by our milieu to know what’s right and wrong – but in identifying whether or not, in the circumstances in which one finds oneself, it’s permissible to transgress the established moral norm.

  12. J says:

    I’m reading this sat in a car in a hospital car park waiting for my friend to come out of an appointment. She’s battling a life threatening illness, but as a migrant woman she’s also fighting the healthcare system, and housing and support and everything stacked against her to gaslight and silence as you say.. . and I could almost feel sorry for them, because they don’t stand a chance 😉

    I see the echoes of everything you write here as well.

    This piece was and informative powerful, thank you so much. You and other women like my friend here continue to inspire me every day.

  13. Tilly says:

    Raman Mundair, thank you so much. For pulling these threads together into the wider tapestry of resistance to partriarchy and class.
    I really enjoyed the words and where they took me.
    I would love to ponder as well the complexity of bodies with wombs, in some lands, gaining control over whether and how they reproduce. And that being used for further killing female embryos, due to the vile pressures, social and economic, of patriarchy… these tensions are interesting to me.

  14. Table says:

    At least women are allowed out in public in Indian Punjab, unlike Pakistani Punjab, but yes, the Hindu caste system could well be the most discriminatory, snobbish society in the World. Probably by a long way. And note that people who can afford ultrasound scans are unlikely to be Dalits.

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