In 2016, numerous protests around the country, many of which concerned sexual violence on campus, once again brought the issue of gender-based violence (GBV) at Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), to the media’s attention as well to the attention of the general South African public. However, sexual violence on campuses in South Africa has been a long-standing issue. Similarly, there have been students actively challenging this violence from as early as the 1980s. This is reflected in De Klerk et al.’s (2007) “The habitus of the dominant”, which discusses sexual violence, and student activism in response to it, at Rhodes University over a 20-year period (1984 – 2004) .
While we are becoming more aware of the issue of GBV at HEIs in South Africa, we lack nationally representative research which can give us a clearer understanding of the nature and extent of this phenomenon. Further, the under-reporting of this type of violence, particularly sexual violence, makes it difficult to determine the true prevalence of the different forms of it at HEIs. Owing to under-reporting, and consequently low numbers of officially reported incidents of sexual violence, HEIs may perceive that sexual violence is not a major issue at their institution and consequently argue that it does not require a concerted institutional response .
This thematic paper addresses the complex nature of GBV at HEIs; the risk factors for and protective factors against GBV on campuses; the consequences of gender-based violence at HEIs; the entry-points for addressing GBV; and the challenges in addressing it. Ultimately, given the complexity of GBV at HEIs, a comprehensive approach goes beyond mere punitive measures to addressing direct violence. An effective, multi-faceted approach must deal with both the latent and manifest individual, societal and institutional factors which enable and exacerbate GBV at HEIs.
The Key Dimensions of GBV at HEIs
Forms of GBV
When addressing gendered violence on campus, Post School Education and Training (PSET) institutions in South Africa have tended to narrow in on the issue of sexual harassment, rather than comprehensively addressing the many different types of GBV . The different forms of GBV at HEIs in South Africa include, but are not limited to: domestic violence; intimate partner violence (IPV); rape; sexual assault; sexual harassment; harassment; and homophobic bullying.
Domestic Violence entails:
“a. physical abuse; b. sexual abuse; c. emotional, verbal and psychological abuse; d. economic abuse; e. intimidation; f. harassment; g. stalking; h. damage to property; i. entry into the complainant´s residence without consent, where the parties do not share the same residence; or j. any other controlling or abusive behaviour towards a complainant, where such conduct harms, or may cause imminent harm to, the safety, health or wellbeing of the complainant.”
- “complainant” means any person who is or has been in a domestic relationship with a respondent and who is or has been subjected or allegedly subjected to an act of domestic violence, including any child in the care of the complainant".
See Republic of South Africa, Domestic Violence Act 116 of 1998 (Pretoria: Government Printers, 1998), 2.
Intimate Partner Violence
Intimate Partner Violence encompasses
"any behaviour within an intimate relationship that causes physical, psychological or sexual harm to those in the relationship. Such behaviour includes:
1. Acts of physical aggression – such as slapping, hitting, kicking and beating;
2. Psychological abuse – such as intimidation, constant belittling and humiliating; Forced intercourse and other forms of sexual coercion;
3. Various controlling behaviours – such as isolating a person from their family and friends, monitoring their movements, and restricting their access to information or assistance”.
See E. G. Krug, L. L. Dahlberg, J. A. Mercy, A. B. Zwi, & R. Lozano, World Report on Violence and Health. World Health Organization, (Geneva, World Health Organization), 89.
“All forms of sexual penetration without consent, irrespective of gender”.
See Republic of South Africa, Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act 32 of 2007 (SOA) (Pretoria: Government Printers, 2007), 10.
Sexual assault encompasses: “[A]ll forms of sexual violation, without consent”. This includes ‘’intentionally inspir[ing] the belief’’ in an individual that they ‘’will be sexually violated’’.
See Republic of South Africa, Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act 32 of 2007 (SOA) (Pretoria: Government Printers, 2007).
Sexual harassment entails
a. "unwelcome sexual attention from a person who knows or ought reasonably to know that such attention is unwelcome;
b. unwelcome explicit or implicit behaviour, suggestions, messages or remarks of a sexual nature that have the effect of offending, intimidating or humiliating the complainant or a related person in circumstances, which a reasonable person having regard to all the circumstances would have anticipated that the complainant or related person would be offended, humiliated or intimidated;
c. implied or expressed promise of reward for complying with a sexually oriented request; or
d. implied or expressed threat of reprisal or actual reprisal for refusal to comply with a sexually oriented request.’’
See Republic of South Africa, Protection from Harassment Act (No.17 of 2011) (Pretoria: Government Printers, 2011), 4.
"[H]arassment means directly or indirectly engaging in conduct that the respondent knows or ought to know -
i. causes harm or inspires the reasonable belief that harm may be caused to the complainant or a related person by unreasonably:
ii. following, watching, pursuing or accosting the complainant or a related person, or loitering outside of or near the building or place where the complainant or a related person resides, works, carries on business, studies or happens to be;
iii. engaging in verbal, electronic or any other communication aimed at the complainant or a related person, by any means, whether or not conversation ensues; or
iv. sending, delivering or causing the delivery of letters, telegrams, packages, facsimiles, electronic mail or other objects to the complainant or a related person or leaving them where they will be found by, given to, or brought to the attention of, the complainant or a related person."
See Republic of South Africa, Protection from Harassment Act (No.17 of 2011) (Pretoria: Government Printers, 2011).
"Homophobic bullying is a specific form of bullying that occurs when bullying is motivated by prejudice against LGBTI people. Homophobic bullying can target a variety of people including:
- young people and adults who are, or are perceived to be, LGBTI
- teachers who are, or are perceived to be, LGBTI
- learners who are perceived to be different in some way
- learners who have an LGBTI parent or sibling."
See Republic of South Africa, Challenging homophobic bullying in schools (Pretoria: Government Printers, 2016), 6.
Gender Differences in Perceptions of Safety and Fear of Crime on Campus
Existing evidence highlights gender differences in perceptions of safety and fear of crime at tertiary institutions. International literature indicates that in many tertiary institutions, women are more fearful of crime and violence than men . This reflects findings from the general public where fear of crime is more prevalent among women than men . South African literature affirms a similar trend domestically. STATS SA has reported that, “in general, crime impedes the activities of women more than it does those of men, though marginally in some cases” .
At Rhodes University in South Africa, a Quality of Residence Life (QORL) Survey was conducted with students at the end of each year, for the years 2010-2013 . As with international literature, the surveys highlighted the gendered nature of fear for safety on campus . Over the four years of the survey,
Risk Factors for GBV on Campus
Sexual violence occurs on a continuum and various manifestations of GBV, such as sexual harassment, highlight underlying pathological norms, attitudes and behaviours of individuals, as well as the broader society. Such norms, attitudes and behaviours are often accepted, normalised and even exacerbated in the institutional environment.
Individual Level Factors (victimisation & perpetration)
Previous victimisation is an individual level risk factor for victimisation and perpetration of GBV on campus . With the incredibly high rates of sexual abuse against children in South Africa, many of the students enrolling in South African HEIs will have been exposed to or experienced violence prior to enrolment. For males, prior victimisation increases their risk for perpetrating GBV, while for females, previous victimisation increases their risk for re-victimisation.
Age is another individual level risk factor for sexual victimisation, with younger females at HEIs often being at increased risk of GBV. Literature conducted at HEIs in the United States has found that with regards to sexual violence victimisation, first year women are a particularly vulnerable group . The role of age in GBV at HEIs is also reflected in South African literature. According to Collins (2014:286), “young men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of most forms of violence, and the typical student age group (that is 18–23 years) is near the middle of the peak offending period … for many young adults, this is their first experience of living away from family care and supervision. The unfamiliar social environment – with fewer constraints and greater opportunities for experimentation – means that students are potentially more vulnerable to abuse and, because of their age and lack of experience, less skilled at protecting themselves” .
Gender-inequitable attitudes and beliefs play a central role in the perpetration of certain types of crimes  . Social norms also influence the reporting of such crimes. Where particular forms of violent or criminal behaviour are normalised, individuals are less likely to intervene when such incidents occur  . Gender-inequitable attitudes and beliefs, which are prevalent within South African society, are reflected in the attitudes and behaviours of some of the students and staff within our HEIs  . These attitudes and values, such as notions of male superiority and male sexual entitlement, may be challenged over-time. However, such norms and values can also contribute to institutional and social norms around campus, which enable and/ or exacerbate GBV.
Alcohol and drug consumption, in addition to problematic gendered norms related to drinking culture, increase the risk for sexual violence to occur . Emblematic of the intersecting nature of drinking culture and rape culture, events such as ‘digs formals’ and house parties can create an atmosphere which increases the risk for ‘’non-consenting sexual encounters’’ .
Institutional Level Factors (victimisation & perpetration)
Institutional and social norms are key to understanding the risk factors at play in GBV at HEIs. HEIs in South Africa are in no way homogenous and consequently, while there are likely certain commonalities between the risk factors and the nature of GBV at different HEIs, there may be risk factors which are unique to particular types of institutions. Institutional norms around, for example, gender-equality and hegemonic masculinity, can influence the likelihood of GBV occurring on campus as well as influence how the institutions respond to this violence  . For example, a 2016 report published by the Rhodes University Sexual Violence Task Team (SVTT) discusses the male dominated nature of the institutional culture at Rhodes University, which has contributed to an exclusionary and stifling/ silencing institutional space . The SVTT Report discusses and recommends the need to develop ‘Safe Spaces’ for victims/survivors of sexual violence – not just physical spaces of safety, but also spaces which allow for gender-discriminatory campus norms to be addressed and challenged.
Institutional factors also influence the likelihood of victims/ survivors reporting incidents of GBV. Where an institution does not provide clarity on what constitutes GBV, staff and students are less likely to report incidents . Incidents of GBV become normalised and accepted and are not perceived as necessitating reporting. Alternatively, where individuals do understand that they have been victimised, but they perceive that their institution would not take their case seriously, or respond meaningfully and quickly to their report, individuals are less likely to report the incident . Where gender equality is widely understood and embraced this is likely to on the one hand inhibit incidences of GBV, and on the other hand empower survivors to report incidences. Where rape culture and norms around victim-blaming are challenged, there is also likely to be an increase in reporting of incidents and individuals seeking assistance post victimisation.
Lack of effective policies and structures to prevent and respond to GBV are key institutional risk factors for GBV. Not all HEIs in South Africa have policies addressing GBV , especially policies concerning sexual harassment . Among the institutions which do have GBV policies, these policies vary between the different institutions . Currently, there is no single overarching policy to address GBV at HEIs in South Africa.
In institutions where GBV policies exist, the policies are not always up to date with current legislation and best practice. Further, these policies are often not comprehensive and/ or are poorly implemented and consequently do not effectively address GBV on campus  . In addition, these policies are often unclear and not easily accessible to the general campus community . Many HEIs also lack the necessary support structures to address and respond to cases of GBV, and/ or lack clear reporting mechanisms for survivors.
Consequent of the gaps in policies and structures to prevent and respond to GBV: a) fewer victims/ survivors report their victimisation and seek assistance; and b) there is an increased likelihood of perpetration of GBV with impunity.
In order to decrease incidents of GBV while concurrently increasingly the number of survivors seeking assistance, interventions to prevent and respond to GBV must be clearly developed and pathways to seek assistance must be clear and uncomplicated. If the processes and structures which provide assistance to victims/ survivors are perceived as complicated and threatening, it will hamper survivors from reporting incidents and seeking assistance. Conversely, where comprehensive policies and structures are developed, which are supportive and survivor centred, there is likely to be an increase in survivors reporting incidents and seeking assistance. Lack of clear, up to date, comprehensive policies and structures to address GBV, not only negatively impacts on help-seeking among survivors but it increases the likelihood of perpetration of GBV with impunity.
This perpetration with impunity is owing to a number of reasons. On the one hand, when students and staff do not have a clear understanding of what constitutes GBV and/or the South African legislation addressing and prohibiting it, they may perpetrate these incidents without even realising that what they are doing is against the law. Patriarchal and hegemonic masculine norms are so embedded across race and class groups within our society, that acts of GBV are often not even perceived as violence. This once again points to the very real need for sustained and multi-faceted campaigns and strategies to challenge these norms and attitudes. On the other hand, other individuals may understand that what they are doing constitutes GBV but owing to lax institutional policies and structures addressing GBV, they are happy to perpetrate these acts because they do not fear reprisal. In other words, if institutional policies to address GBV lack clarity and if response structures are complex and poorly understood, individuals are more likely to perpetrate incidents because they do not fear reprisal, or any significant reprisal at that.
The nature of campus spaces is also an important institutional risk factor for GBV. This relates to the environmental design of institutions and where incidents more frequently occur. In terms of the location of GBV on campus, incidents of GBV can occur on campus grounds, in campus buildings (e.g. lecture venues, tutorial rooms), in residences, while students and staff are moving to and from campus, including in the immediate vicinity of the campuses; as well as during off-campus site visits, for example for students and staff in health sciences and social work who have off campus placements, as part of their studies. In the case of sexual violence at university, as with international literature, existing South African studies suggest that sexual violence often occurs in university residences. The environmental design of an institution can increase or decrease the likelihood of GBV occurring. Environmental design is perhaps less of a risk factor in cases of GBV, as compared to other forms of campus crime, such as theft, robbery and hijacking, as such incidents are often perpetrated by strangers, whereas incidents of GBV at HEIs are frequently perpetrated by acquaintances. However, environmental design can play a role in increasing or decreasing the risk of GBV. This includes the risk of stalking and harassment and sometimes, as was noted at the University of Cape Town (UCT), the design of residences including poor access control can be a risk factor for sexual assault . In addition, environmental design can also either increase or decrease the fear of victimisation. This fear of victimisation is often exacerbated for individuals who have previously experienced incidents of GBV.
Consequences of GBV on Campus
Experience of GBV on campus can have multiple short and long-term negative consequences for survivors. Firstly, there are often emotional and psychological consequences to GBV victimisation  . The trauma and fear can result in heightened anxiety, low self-esteem, somatic symptoms and decreased concentration and productivity . In addition to experiencing many of the negative consequences that other victims/ survivors of campus violence experience, with regards to sexual violence, sexual assault victims are at risk of suffering from depression, struggling with suicidal ideation and using and abusing substances. Substance abuse can be viewed as a form of self-medicating, a means of trying to numb the pain and move on. In addition to the emotional and psychological consequences of sexual violence, many survivors of campus sexual violence suffer academically, in some cases this can lead to them having to take a leave of absence and for some it can result in them dropping out of university.
Study findings suggest that females are more affected by sexual and gender-based harassment than men . While sexual harassment is often trivialised as a form of sexual violence, in some cases the negative psychological impact of the harassment is so severe that it results in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder . Experience of sexual harassment can also negatively impact on female staff and students’ engagement in everyday activities, with them sometimes resorting to avoidance tactics to limit the likelihood of revictimisation . For female students, experience of sexual harassment can result in decreased class participation, decreased concentration during lectures and even dropping out of courses .
The negative repercussions of GBV on students’ ability to learn, not only has a detrimental effect on their academics and career potential but it has a negative impact on the university and more broadly on the society, through lost potential. GBV at HEIs can also lead to distrust within the campus community. When addressing GBV on campus, it is also important to focus on staff and students´ fear of GBV victimisation on campus. This fear can have an impact on student and staff well-being, academic functioning and progress (such as class and work attendance), and engagement in campus activities. Students and staff should not only be free from GBV, but they should be free from the fear thereof . This involves ‘’fear of victimisation and perceived risk’’.
Addressing Campus GBV
The complex and long-term impact of sexual violence victimisation needs to be properly understood and factored in to HEIs responses to such incidents. Such support and follow-up should be carefully considered, and survivor-centred. There needs to be a balance between ensuring the provision of sufficient support and follow-up and ensuring the survivor’s right to privacy be respected and protected. In one study a student described the institution’s failure to provide follow-up support as ‘‘institutional amnesia’’, as she felt as though the University quickly forgot about what had happened to her or intentionally did not want to dwell on the incident that had occurred on its campus . This lack of follow-up may not have necessarily been intentional, but possibly rather indicative of a lack of understanding of the consequences of sexual violence for survivors. It appears that this lack of long-term follow-up, tracking and support for sexual violence survivors is a common challenge at HEIs in South Africa. Students’ response to the impact of the trauma is sometimes delayed and only a few months down the line can the extent of the impact on their overall functioning be observed, including the impact the trauma has had on their academic functioning.
The efficacy of policies to address GBV depends on a range of factors. An integrated approach is needed that addresses both the individual and structural factors that underlie this phenomenon. Legislation and policies and Campus Support and Response Structures are vital entry point in this regard. Apart from the Constitution, South African universities’ responsibility to address GBV on campus derive from, among others, the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act, 32 of 2007, the Domestic Violence Act, 116 of 1998 and the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act, 4 of 2000, the Department of Higher Education and Training policy. While most universities in South Africa have sexual harassment legislation and policies, the efficacy of these policies has been brought into question given the low reporting rates . This is a complex issue for universities to deal with, as they want to be perceived as taking sexual harassment seriously, but at the same time, if they actively address it there is a concern that there will be an increase in reporting which could tarnish their institutional image . Further, it must be reiterated that while many universities have policies many technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges do not .
While currently there is no single overarching policy to address GBV at HEIs in South Africa, a national policy and strategic framework is being developed. The Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) in collaboration with Higher Education and Training HIV/AIDS Programme (HEAIDS) and other relevant stakeholders has established a task team which is currently in the process of developing a National Policy and Strategy Framework to Address GBV in the Post-School Education and Training Sector. This framework intends to:
“Detail the international and national regulatory framework compelling institutional and departmental responses to GBV;
Conceptualise GBV and define its manifestation in terms of existing law and policy;
Provide guidance around the structures, mechanisms and processes that PSET institutions must put in place to address GBV;
Recommend steps that universities and colleges should take to both create awareness of GBV policies and prevent incidents of GBV; and
Set out a framework for oversight of the DHET and PSET institutions’ development and implementation of policy” .
Another key entry point to addressing GBV at HEIs is in terms of the appropriate Campus Support and Response Structures. In a 2016 report published by the Rhodes University Sexual Violence Task Team (SVTT), it was highlighted that there was a lack of clarity with regards to the mandate of each role player involved in preventing and responding to GBV at the institution . The report further highlighted how the stakeholders and role players’ roles and mandates need to be clearly defined in the institution’s policies .
On-campus (formal) support structures. GBV matters may be dealt with by multiple on-campus support structures within PSET institutions, include campus security, student representative councils, student affairs, human resources/employee relations departments, transformation units and legal offices . For example, Campus Security Services provides security for the university, and is not located under student services, but works in collaboration with this sector. It is responsible for all security services, from crime prevention to investigations of crimes. The intention of Student Representative Councils is to institute democratic mechanisms of representation and thus allow the university to be more responsive to the needs of students.
Off-campus (formal and informal) support structures include friends, forensic units at hospitals and off-campus counselling support e.g. Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust. Significantly, those who experience sexual harassment and/or rape are more likely to report such incidents to their families and friends .
Under-reporting is a fundamental challenge to addressing GBV at HEIs. In the United States, one of the main challenges to addressing GBV on campuses is the issue of under-reporting of offenses, particularly of sexual offenses . While, as previously mentioned, South African literature regarding GBV at HEIs is limited, the issue of under-reporting has also been identified in local literature . The factors which contribute to under-reporting appear to be similar to those noted in the international literature, they include: a) fear of the perpetrator finding out and the potential repercussions if he/ she does find out  ; b) lack of confidence in institutional response mechanisms  ; and c) anxiety over how the institution and/or police would handle the case . Under-reporting is problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, it means that survivors often do not receive much needed assistance and support. Secondly, it can make it more challenging to bring perpetrators to justice. Thirdly, owing to under-reporting, it is difficult to determine the nature and extent of GBV on campuses and consequently harder to develop interventions to effectively prevent and respond to GBV.
With regards to under-reporting owing to the survivor´s fear of the perpetrator finding out and the potential repercussions if he/she does find out, Adams, Mabusela and Dlamini (2013: 1152) describe the following “male lecturers seem to have mastered the art of silencing them (victims/ survivors) by stating the condition that ‘you have to have sex with me or fail the module’ " . In essence, this means that the perpetrators threaten the students with punishment for non-compliance with sexual acts or if they dare to disclose such acts .
“In the case of the female student/male lecturer relationship, inequality and male dominance is maintained by intimidating female students either to yield to the demands of the perpetrator or to fail the subject. According to this perspective, men believe that their behaviour is justified, whereas women blame themselves for being harassed” .
The gender-discriminatory nature of measures to address GBV is also a matter of concern at certain institutions. De Klerk et al.’s (2007) study highlights how historically at Rhodes University, the onus was placed on females to ensure their own safety . This was highlighted in the following gendered measures: a) night-time curfews in women’s residences (but not in men’s residences); b) women being advised on how to dress; and c) police providing campus security escorts for women . Here we see how female students’ freedoms were restricted, through measures aimed at protecting potential victims from victimisation as compared to preventing potential perpetrators from perpetrating . Further, the University was slow to bring about adaptations to the campuses’ environmental design, such as through a) improved lighting, as a prevention measure; and b) measures to improve campus security. In addition, provision of counselling for survivors was not prioritised .
A further challenge to reporting incidents of GBV is the lack of confidence in institutional response mechanisms . In 1991, a report was produced by the Rhodes University SRC Women’s group . The report identified that, while sexual violence was a major issue at the institution, the University’s dealings with it were inhibiting survivors from reporting. The students felt that they were not being properly listened to and supported when they tried to report incidents . Students also described a lack of clarity among students as to who and where to report such incidents, which further inhibited reporting .
Anxiety over how the institution/ police/ others will deal with the case is a crucial inhibitor of reporting. One of the factors which inhibits survivors from reporting is the fear of how others will respond to them. For example, survivors being questioned over the validity of their account ; victim-blaming, such as questioning regarding what they were wearing, or if they had drunk alcohol , and/ or why they were where they were when the incident occurred. Blaming a survivor for having drunk alcohol/ being drunk at the time of the rape ignores the fact the SOA is clear that an individual is unable to consent if at the time of a sexual act the individual is "in an altered state of consciousness, including under the influence of any medicine, drug, alcohol or other substance, to the extent that [their] consciousness or judgement is adversely affected´´ consciousness or judgement is adversely affected" (Section 1(3)(d) of the SOA, Act No. 32 of 2007).
As alluded to in the introduction, there is a dearth of literature on GBV in HEIs in South Africa and, therefore, more research is urgently needed. To date, existing studies examining GBV at HEIs in the country have generally been small-scale and often qualitative in nature. While such studies are helpful in providing in-depth descriptions of certain experiences at certain institutions, they are unable to provide us with a comprehensive understanding of the nature and prevalence of GBV in this context. Further, many of the studies conducted have tended to focus on sexual offenses, while other forms of GBV have not been explored as much. Consequently, there is a need for quantitative, nationally representative studies to be conducted on the nature and extent of GBV at tertiary institutions in South Africa.
In conclusion, GBV at HEIs is a very complex phenomenon. It requires a long-term, societal approach. The Policy and Strategy Framework Addressing Gender-based Violence in the Post-School Education Sector is an important step towards addressing GBV at HEIs in South Africa. Given the underlying risk factors for GBV, a comprehensive approach goes beyond punitive measures to addressing direct violence, to addressing structural gendered violence, but also:
- the acute specific challenges of underreporting,
- the gender-discriminatory nature of much of the existing legislation and policies to addressed GBV at South African universities,
- fear of the perpetrator finding out and the potential repercussions if he/she does find out,
- a lack of confidence in institutional response mechanisms,
- anxiety over how the institution/police/others would deal with the case,
- and a dearth of scholarly research on the subject of GBV in HEIs.
List of References
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 Republic of South Africa, Addressing Gender-Based Violence In The Post-School Education And Training Sector: Draft Policy And Strategy Framework (Pretoria: Government Printers, 2017), 6.
 Sexual Violence Task Team (SVTT), “We will not be silenced”: A three–pronged justice approach to sexual offences and rape culture at Rhodes University/UCKAR, (Grahamstown, South Africa: Critical Studies in Sexualities and Reproduction)
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 Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), 2017. Addressing Gender-Based Violence In The Post-School Education And Training Sector: Draft Policy And Strategy Framework. Available here.
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