woman selling goods at an African market
March 17, 2023

By: Dawn Malcolm

Achieving women’s economic empowerment in an increasingly unequal world

Women’s economic empowerment could reduce poverty for everyone. In order to achieve it, we need to first fix the current broken economic model which is undermining gender equality and causing extreme economic inequality. The neoliberal model has made it harder for women to have better quality and better paid jobs; address inequality in unpaid care work, and women’s influence and decision making power is constrained. To achieve women’s economic empowerment, we need a human economy that works for women and men alike, and for everyone, not just the richest 1%.
Making the economy work for women is the key to women’s economic empowerment. In no country have women achieved economic equality with men, and women continue to be disadvantaged compared to men across virtually all aspects of economic empowerment.37 Research shows women value a good quality job just as much as men do, even in the countries with the highest levels of gender inequality.38 However, globally, 700 million fewer women than men are in paid work,39 with only marginal progress being made to reduce this gap over the decade up to 2015.40
Across the world, women consistently earn less than men and are concentrated in the lowest-paid and least secure forms of work.41 Globally, the average gender pay gap, which measures the difference between women’s and men’s waged earnings, is 23%, with women in most countries earning 70 to 90 % of men’s wages.42 In South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, where women are concentrated in low-paid informal and agricultural sectors, and strong gender inequalities persist across women’s lives, the wage gap tends to even be higher.43 The pay gap is higher when gender inequality intersects with other forms of social and economic inequalities and marginalization based on, for example, race, ethnicity, age and class. In Latin America, the gender pay gap is much higher for indigenous women.44
Although narrower, gender pay gaps also persist in high-income countries. In the UK for example, women are paid less than men in 90% of sectors45 and in Canada, the pay gap for women in full-time work widened between 2009 and 2011.46 Even in New Zealand, the OECD country with the lowest gender gap, women still earn on average 5% less than men.47 One factor associated with the gender pay gap is the ‘motherhood penalty’, where women who choose to have children see higher inequality in their pay, while for men there is a ‘fatherhood bonus’, where men’s pay on average is higher for those with children.48
Women are also more likely to work in the informal sector, especially in Asia and Africa, where this includes up to 75% of women. 49 Women who work in the informal sector are less likely to have decent work, employment contracts, legal identity or social protection, and face much higher restrictions in organizing for labor rights. Nearly 600 million women worldwide are in the most precarious forms of work – as home-based workers or subsistence farmers for example.50 Women’s work in the informal sector is also often not recognized or counted as part of the economy, as it goes undocumented.
Agriculture also remains an important area of work for women, particularly in developing regions. In sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, women are less likely than men to have access to secure, good quality land or to the inputs they need to earn an income through farming.51 In Latin America, although women and men have equal legal rights to land ownership in most countries, deep-rooted cultural and institutional barriers mean that in practice women own less land than men, and the land women do own is of the poorest quality. This is apparent in land ownership ranging from women owning 8% of total landholdings in Guatemala, to 30% in Peru.52 Women also carry out unpaid agricultural work, for example contributing to subsistence farming for their families and 9 communities. Nearly a quarter of all women globally are defined by the ILO as ‘unpaid contributing family workers’.53
As well as these inequalities, women do at least twice as much unpaid care work as men – sometimes 10 times as much, often on top of their paid work. 54 This includes tasks such as cooking, cleaning and looking after children and other family members, including people who are sick or elderly.55 Gender stereotypes, which traditionally see men as ‘breadwinners’ and women as caregivers, mean that even where women are increasingly responsible for earning an income, unpaid care and domestic work still falls largely to them.
Women’s disproportionate responsibility for this work squeezes the amount of time that they have to go to school and earn a living. For many women, this inequality restricts those choices women can make to earn an income, participate in public life, and to spend on essential rest and leisure.56 In Latin America and the Caribbean, a study found that over half of women aged 20 to 24 who were not seeking employment said it was because of their unpaid care work responsibilities.57
Inequality in responsibility for unpaid care work means that on average, women work longer days than men when paid and unpaid work is counted together.58 This inequality accumulates, resulting in the fact that globally, a young woman today will work on average the equivalent of four extra years over her lifetime than a man – an extra month of work for every year of a woman’s life.59
The fact that this work is seen as ‘women’s work’ explains why it is not valued by society, despite it oiling the wheels of our economies. 60 This work is worth $10 trillion to the global economy each year,61 equivalent to over an eighth of the world’s entire GDP, and more than the GDPs of India, Japan and Brazil combined.62 When care work is professionalized, it tends to be poorly paid and insecure. Over 80 % of the world’s domestic workers are women, many of them migrant workers, and they face high risks of exploitation and a lack of decent work.63
Women’s inequality in the economy is influenced by a number of factors that have always been present in all economies: a lack of equality under the law and in regulation and a failure of economic theory to count or value women’s work. Both of these are driven by harmful social norms which devalue women’s work and constrain their choices. Our economies exploit these social norms and unfair laws, and our economic theory fails to recognize this.
Gender inequality is perpetuated by harmful social norms and discrimination. These norms are deeply held beliefs and attitudes which constrain what is and is not acceptable behavior for men and women, and often devalue women’s role and status. Harmful norms limit women’s mobility outside the home, justify violence against women and place more value on roles traditionally held by men.
In the economy, they constrain individual women’s opportunities, and mean certain forms of work are considered as suitable for either men or women but not both. Those jobs seen as suitable for women tend to have less status, and are paid less.65 For example, women in developed countries dominate the service sectors, where pay is about 70% of the national average.66 Men, on the other hand, are over-represented in senior official and management positions, where earnings are twice the national average.67 Social norms can also prevent women having economic opportunities altogether. Research in 67 developing countries revealed that on average, one in five men disagreed that women should have work outside the home, even if they are qualified to do it.68 And when job opportunities are scarce, nearly two in five people globally think that men should have stronger rights to them than women.69
Many of these social norms have been codified in law, leading to unequal treatment for women and men. Globally, 155 economies have at least one law which means women have fewer economic rights than men.70 This includes 18 countries where husbands can legally prevent their wives from working, and 100 countries where women are not allowed to do the same jobs as men.71 Legal restrictions also impede women’s rights in other areas of their lives that directly affect their participation in the workforce; for example, 46 countries have no laws against domestic violence.72 Progress also needs to be made to ensure that regulation supports the rights of women in the most precarious forms of work, for example by extending social protection and labor rights to those with casual or temporary contracts.73
Without repealing laws which discriminate against women, or ensuring that regulations designed to give workers labor rights extend to women in the most precarious forms of work, it will not be possible to build an economy that works for women.
An economy that worked for women would be based on policies that recognize and seek to reduce gender inequality. However, harmful social norms also translate into economic theory and policy making. Traditional economic theory has tended to ignore the fact that gender inequality affects how people participate in and benefit from the economy, and has also largely ignored the contribution that predominately women provide through unpaid care work.
Feminist economists have pointed out, for example, that the theory of rational choice, which says people will act in a way which maximizes the gains to themselves, does not recognize that people often choose to act in ways to support their families rather themselves as individuals, and that gender norms mean women are more likely to do this than men.74 Rational choice also does not recognize that women may have less power to make these decisions, for example because they are constrained in the types of work they can take up or in their ability to work outside the home. The exclusion from measures of the economy of unpaid care and domestic work, and other types of unpaid work predominately carried out by women such as subsistence farming, is also a major way that our current economic model has always discriminated against women. By asking the wrong questions or ignoring women outright, economists and policy makers have often put in place policies that have cemented gender inequality rather than helped solve it.75 As well as excluding unpaid care work from measurements of economic well-being, the effects of government spending decisions on gender inequality are often not taken into account. It is perhaps no coincidence then that the field of economics has been dominated by white, Western men – in the 47 years it has been awarded, only one woman has received the Nobel Prize for Economics.76 In this way economic theory has failed to challenge and in many ways has legitimized the exploitation of women’s inequality for economic gain. In recent decades this process has been accelerated by the nature of the current economic model, which has dominated economic decision making across the world.
Women’s economic empowerment requires the creation of decent, quality work opportunities to ensure that work provides women with a high enough income to move out of poverty and boosts their decision making power in other areas of their lives.77 It also requires governments to be able to invest in the services and infrastructure that women need to achieve equality, such as education and healthcare, and to support care work. However, these goals are being undermined by an economy that is increasingly unequal, and doesn’t work for women. Extreme economic inequality is being driven by failed economic policies that also undermine gender equality and the achievement of women’s economic empowerment.
In recent decades, we have seen the benefits of economic growth disproportionately accrue to the very richest, the majority of whom are men. This has resulted in extreme economic inequality, with eight men now owning as much wealth as the bottom half of humanity – 3.6 billion people.78 The poorest in the global economy have seen their income levels grow much more slowly than those of the richest; over the last 25 years, the top one percent has gained more income than the bottom 50% put together.79
This extreme economic inequality is slowing down progress in reducing poverty. Had inequality not increased between 1990 and 2010, 700 million more people, most of them women, would not be living in poverty today. 80 The World Bank has said that without redoubling their efforts to tackle inequality, world leaders will miss their goal of ending extreme poverty by 2030.81 Rising economic inequality has exacerbated other forms of inequality based on, for example, ethnicity, caste, race or geography.82 Here, we discuss how these policies have also have made achieving women’s economic empowerment, a key component of gender equality, much harder.
Economic and gender inequality are by no means separate phenomena. The majority of the richest in society continue to be men,83 while women are more likely to live in poverty and be in lower income groups, carrying out the majority of unpaid care work.84 This holds true even in advanced countries where women and men have the same access to education.85 The IMF has also shown that gender inequality contributes to higher income inequality, as women have lower access to healthcare and education, and participate in the labor market at lower rates, lowering their overall income levels. 86 These differences are confirmed by research that showed that countries which have reduced gender inequality more slowly than average have not managed to reduce economic inequality.87
Oxfam has identified neoliberal policies and political capture as two driving forces in the explosion in extreme economic inequality in the last 30 years.88 Neoliberal policies have enabled a concentration of wealth at the top of the economy, while political capture, where the richest have undue influence on policy making, has made it less likely economies will work for everyone rather than the few. Neoliberal policies can be characterized as those that focus on expansion of markets and individualism. These have led to increased rights, mobility and freedoms for corporations, and a corresponding reduction in collective action, state regulation and government intervention in the economy. Recent research published by the IMF found that instead of supporting growth, some neoliberal policies have increased inequality.89
There are many aspects of the neoliberal model that have been critiqued by feminist economists.90 The three major areas this report focuses on are the role of neoliberalism in the downward pressure on the incomes and quality of work for the poorest, the majority of whom are women; the failure to recognize or invest in unpaid care work; and constraints on women’s voice and decision making power. In these ways the current economic model of neoliberalism makes the fight for women’s economic empowerment far harder. To empower women, we need a new approach to the way we run our economies.
Policy making must pay particular attention to addressing these inequalities and ensuring the economic inclusion of women working in the most precarious forms of work. Women most likely to fall into this category include agricultural workers, domestic workers, migrant workers and those in the informal sector.
No country has ever achieved equality in pay between men and women, and when increasing numbers of women have joined the workforce, they have consistently been in lower-paid and lower status jobs than men. However, since the 1980s, neoliberal economic policies have further eroded the wages of the lowest paid workers, disproportionately affecting women. In developing countries, women’s low-paid labor at the bottom of new global supply chains created by globalization has facilitated higher profits for others, while failing to offer economic empowerment.
As the world economy has globalized, many women have been brought into new employment opportunities, especially in manufacturing and agricultural export sectors, for example in East Asia’s textile and food sectors.94 While these new jobs have opened up new opportunities for women, trade and labor policies have undermined the quality of the roles and the power of the women working in them.
In these sectors, women typically are concentrated in the lowest paid and least secure roles, for example manufacturing garments, footwear or small electronics.95 This is no accident – specific strategies have been used to bring women into the labor market to provide a cheaper source of labour.96 Evidence from East Asia showed that despite rapid economic growth that relied on women workers, gender wage gaps remained persistently wide, and in some cases worsened.97 To compete with other countries for investment, countries have kept wages in export sectors low, often clamping down on labor organizing and rights as a way to mitigate upward pressure on wage levels.
The garment industry, where 80 % of manufacturing workers are women, is an example of a sector where wages are set too low and labor rights infringements frequently occur. In Vietnam, Oxfam has interviewed women working in garment factories who, despite working 12 hours a day, six days a week, struggle to meet their basic needs with the wages they receive.
Tham is a worker in The Tinh Loi factory, which produces garments for global brands. Tham earns less than $1 an hour. In an interview, she said: ‘My working hours and salary are unfair. The thing I find unfair is that with the same amount of work, my salary has decreased…We, as workers, cannot do anything to influence management. In case of urgent orders and difficulties the overtime and salary are decided by management. We only follow those decisions.’ However the garment industry is one which generates large profits for some of the richest people in the world. For example, annual share dividends from the parent company of fashion chain Zara to Amancio Ortega – the world’s second richest man – are worth approximately €1.1bn. 98 Stefan Persson, a major shareholder in H&M and ranked 32 in the Forbes list of the richest people in the world, received €658m in share dividends last year.99 Although not directly connected to the factory that Tham works in, this shows the stark inequality in the industry.
Increasing the availability of decent work opportunities and raising pay levels in the lowest paid sectors would reduce poverty and inequality and are essential to achieving women’s economic empowerment. Concentrated in low-paid work, women stand to gain the most from these policies.100 Raising minimum wage levels can also lower the 16 gender pay gap. Governments and companies should make sure to extend these measures to the informal sector.
Women working and earning only poverty wages is not simply a developing country phenomenon. In the United States, women form the majority of low-wage workers in every state and comprise 57 percent of those who earn under $15 an hour – the minimum wage level that campaigners say would provide a route out of poverty.103 In the UK, women continue to be over-represented in low-paying sectors such as care and hospitality, where pay and job security are poor. 104
Recently, concerns have also been raised about emerging forms of work in sectors where women are concentrated. Increasing flexibility of work hours – meaning that workers are no longer offered a secure, long-term contract with guaranteed wages, but instead participate in ‘zero hour’ or ‘gig economy’ employment, undermines workers’ position and quality of employment. Research showed that a rapidly growing ‘on demand’ approach in the domestic work sector, in which 80 % of workers are women,105 using digital apps and platforms to ensure workers’ availability as needed, is failing to provide decent work opportunities.106 This is because the jobs created offer low and insecure incomes, and reinforce discrimination and unequal power relations between domestic workers and their employers. They also fail to be covered by established labor and social protection measures.
To achieve women’s economic empowerment, unpaid care work must be recognized for its value, the drudgery of the tasks reduced, and responsibility for this work redistributed more equally to men and to wider society. A quality education, access to healthcare and social protection are essential foundations for women to have equal opportunities – and for the poorest women and girls to escape poverty. The state can play a key role in providing these services, and giving women opportunities to change their lives. However, these goals run counter to neoliberal economic policies, which have advocated for reductions in public spending and the privatization of services.
As mentioned previously, traditional economic models are blind to the contribution that unpaid care work makes; it is not counted in GDP despite being worth as much as $10 trillion a year to the global economy.107 In high income countries, labor rights such as parental leave and pensions have supported women’s entry into the labor force, although there is some way to go in ensuring these support full equality. However, in both high-income and developing countries, governments have failed to adequately invest in public services. Governments have also used public spending cuts in times of economic crisis.
As recognized by the UN High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment, ‘reductions in public spending – including health, education, social services and social protection – are especially damaging for women.’108 These reinforce gender inequality in opportunities, and result in women’s free labor subsidizing the economy. For example, recent research showed that globally, 57 million unpaid workers are filling in the gaps caused by inadequate healthcare provision.109 The majority of these unpaid workers are women who have given up employment to carry this out role.
Recent evidence also points to a growing childcare crisis in developing countries, where at most, only half of three- to five-year-old children have some form of early childhood education. 110 The least access is available for the poorest children, which both restricts their mothers’ time and the benefits that the children would see from attending nursery. A lack of investment in social protection and welfare measures such as sick pay, maternity and paternity leave and pensions also increases the costs of care shouldered by women.111
There is clear evidence that policies which invest in the care economy have positive effects for economic growth, employment and gender equality. Research in seven OECD countries shows that if two percent of GDP were invested in care services, in this case social care and childcare, employment would rise by an estimated 2.4 to 6.1 percent.112 The policies would also boost overall employment and economic growth. These investments could also reduce economic inequality for many women with caring responsibilities, as they could take advantage of services being provided at a lower cost and therefore would have more opportunities to increase their paid work.
Investments in infrastructure which prioritize supporting unpaid care work can also be effective. In Pakistan, having water sources closer to home has been associated with women devoting less time to housework and increased female employment.113 And in South Africa, electrification in rural areas has been linked to a reduction in the time women spend on housework, increasing the opportunities for women to take up employment. 114
Fiscal policy is a key tool in reducing both gender and economic inequality: progressive tax policies ensure that enough revenue is raised from those who can afford it to spend on public services that improve outcomes for everyone – healthcare, water and childcare, for example. UN Women’s research has found that although many countries have made commitments towards gender equality, an analysis of national action plans to achieve these goals shows funding deficits of as high as 90%.115 The capacity of governments to raise enough revenue has been reduced by policies that prioritize attracting trade and investment through tax incentives such as tax holidays, tax exemptions and free trade zones.116 Most of the people who benefit from these policies are the already well off, the majority of whom are men.117
On top of this, to compensate for these tax breaks, governments increasingly rely on indirect taxation such as VAT on goods and services.118 Indirect taxes are considered regressive since the poorest people pay the same rate of tax as the richest. They also tend to exacerbate gender inequalities, as most of those poorest people are women.
Women’s economic empowerment requires women having the chance to shape their opportunities based on their own interests and for policies to be shaped in line with their priorities. Women therefore need to have full and equal participation in economic, social and political life at all levels, from the household to the national and global levels. Government and economic policy making also need to be just as accountable to the poorest citizens as to the richest.
Research shows that women mobilizing and organizing can be a powerful force in challenging inequality and poverty, and achieving change against discrimination which holds women back. For example, the presence of strong women’s rights and feminist movements has been found to be the single most effective factor in governments taking action to end violence against women and girls. 119 Despite this, women’s rights organizations face a chronic lack of funds, and experience difficulties in accessing the types of funding they need to build sustainable futures.120
Women’s organizing in the workforce has also been key to achieving better economic rights and empowerment. Research has shown the influence of women’s activism in bringing about stronger labor rights and increased parental benefits.121 Another study showed that countries with strong collective bargaining coverage, and higher than average minimum wage levels, have smaller gender pay gaps.122
Women-run cooperatives or producer groups that bring together self-employed women are better able to access markets and global supply chains. Being organized into collective enterprises allows women to pool their assets, skills and other resources to produce goods and services of higher quality and quantity.123
In Rwanda, Oxfam interviewed Flonira, who has been working as part of a cooperative since 2009. Since then she has earned enough money to renovate her house, grow her own tomato tree plantation and support her son’s university education. She reported that the cooperative has changed perceptions of women in her community, who are now valued and respected for their contributions.
Historically, trade unions have bargained for improvements in the rights of workers that have in many ways supported gender equality, for example parental leave policies and for the rights of part-time workers. Women are, however, often concentrated in sectors that are harder to organize – particularly in informal forms of work. Formal trade unions have also not consistently prioritized gender equality, perhaps because their leadership has tended to be male-dominated. The ability and rights of workers to organize collectively has also been restricted by neoliberal laws and policies in order to keep the costs of labor down and increase profits. The decline in the number of workers covered by unions in the last two decades has been linked to growing inequality in wages.124
Supporting women-led labor movements, and ensuring laws and regulations do not prohibit labor organizing, is important to enabling women to challenge unfair working conditions and mobilize for improvements that will better support gender equality in the economy.
Economic policy has often been blind to gender equality, and in being so has reinforced inequalities in women’s low-paid and unpaid labor. Oxfam has also found that political capture, where the richest in society – such as large corporations – have more influence over priorities and economic policy, results in an economy which is skewed towards making them even richer, rather than benefitting everyone equally.125
Gender budgeting, which is a process through which budgets are analyzed and made more accountable to women’s rights and priorities, has proven a powerful tool in reversing this. The IMF has found that governments that have used some form of gender budgeting are more likely to reach the goals they have set on gender equality.126 In Oxfam’s experience, involving civil society, particularly women-led organizations, in the process means that budgets can become more accountable to women’s priorities. This can be a process which happens at the local as well as national and global levels. Governments, international organizations and wider civil society play can play an important role in increasing the funding and training available for women’s rights organizations and feminist movements, in order to be able to engage in these processes.
Increasing women’s political leadership is also effective. In India, a study showed that female-led local councils had a 62% higher number of drinking water projects than male-led councils.127 Another study in Norway found a direct causal relationship between women being in municipal councils and childcare coverage improving.128 Men also have a responsibility to promote gender equality, but without addressing the bias against women’s voices in the economy, the economy will continue to not work for them.
In recent years, we have seen greater recognition by governments and policy makers noting that women’s economic and workforce participation can pay powerful economic dividends; however, we have seen less concern with making sure that the benefits of their work are also experienced by women themselves. While the focus remains on making women work for the good of the economy, making the economy work for women has yet to be seriously addressed. Feminist economists and women’s civil society organizations continue to provide critiques of prevailing economic models and policies – but their contributions continue to be sidelined in male-dominated economic spheres.
Oxfam is calling for a ‘human economy’ which works for everyone, not just the few; one that benefits women and men alike.129 It would create fairer, better societies, ensure secure jobs paying decent wages, and treat women and men equally. The people who should benefit disproportionately from our economies are people living in poverty. Our economy would thrive within the limits of our planet, and hand a better, more sustainable world to every new generation. Building a human economy requires us to fundamentally reject the current economic model, and agree to rebuild our economies in a different way.

1. Ensure decent work, including a fair income, secure contracts and safe working conditions. Governments and businesses should address the quality and security of women’s economic opportunities by:
• Assessing current labor and wage standards to ensure domestic workers, migrant workers and informally employed workers are covered by all current and future labor standards legislation.
• Addressing workplace violence and discrimination through legislation, prosecution, public information campaigns and holding corporate actors to account.
• Committing to lifting minimum wages to living wage standards, and setting out a roadmap to do so in consultation with workers and unions.
• Undertaking concerted efforts to end the gender pay gap, including ensuring equal pay for equal value and promoting decent work opportunities for women.
• Repealing laws that discriminate against women’s economic equality and implementing legislation and regulatory frameworks that support women’s rights.
• Promote positive social norms and attitudes to women’s work and to the rebalancing of power at the household, local, national and international levels.
• Ensure women have pathways to better-paid positions, and improve access to education and training for well-paid careers. Encourage transparent promotion 23 pathways and policies that encourage employers to hire and train low-skilled, low wage workers.
2. Recognize, reduce and redistribute unpaid care work.
• Governments should invest in public services and infrastructure which reduces and redistributes unpaid care work, including universal free public healthcare, social care, child care, water and sanitation, and education services.
• Governments and International Finance Institutions should include unpaid care work as part of their economic development strategies.
• Governments and businesses should recognize women’s greater responsibility for unpaid care work and help to reduce the proportion borne by women through providing child, dependent adult, and elderly care and paid family and medical leave, flexible working hours and paid parental leave.
• Governments should promote the redistribution of unpaid care work through policies that encourage men to do their fair share of this work. These include flexible working and parental leave for both parents. Social norms on the gender distribution of care work should also be challenged, for example through advertising or public campaigns.
• Governments and international institutions should collect better data on the distribution of unpaid care work and its contribution to the overall economy. Governments should maximize fiscal space for women’s economic empowerment, through progressive and gender sensitive tax policies. They should crack down on tax dodging by rich corporations and individuals; raise taxes on the richest and reduce them on the poorest; and use these additional revenues to invest in public services.
3. Support women’s voices – in labor and feminist movements, collective enterprise, and political participation and leadership.
• Governments should adopt gender budgeting approaches that systematically involve women’s organizations and civil society, to provide proper scrutiny and fully assess the impact of economic policies on women and girls. They should support the training of organizations and women in this area and improve data collection that would enable it.
• Governments, international institutions and civil society should provide increased, accessible funding to women’s organizations to enable them to consistently and effectively raise the concerns of women, in government, civil society and corporate sector spaces.
• Governments should ensure laws are in place that protect the rights of women workers to unionize and strike, and rescind laws in opposition to those rights.
• All actors should support women’s collective enterprises and cooperatives, including through providing training and integrating them fairly into supply chains.
• Governments and civil society should implement policies to promote women’s political participation and leadership. Governments, business and civil society should recognize the danger that confronts women advocating for women’s rights. They should establish effective measures to ensure that women human rights defenders, including trade unionists, enjoy full protection and a safe environment in which to carry out their actions without fear of reprisal.


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