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GENDER ISSUES IN FARMING SYSTEMS
RESEARCH AND EXTENSION
SOUTH PACIFIC WOMEN IN THE FIELD:
THEIR ROLES AS AGRICULTURAL EXTENSION PROFESSIONALS
Mount Holyoke College
Conference on Gender Issues and Farming Systems
Research and Extension
February 28, 1985
NOT FOR PUBLICATION OR QUOTATION WITHOUT PERMISSION OF THE AUTHOR
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Recent research on women's place in economic development
has firmly established their significant part in agricultural
production. In some areas (Sub-Saharan Africa, Pacific Melanesia),
they regularly perform the majority of agricultural tasks. Recent
revisions in agricultural labor census techniques have revealed
that, in the rest of the world as well, women contribute a good
segment of agricultural labor that was previously uncounted,
underestimated or even ignored (Dixon, 1982).
Yet despite overwhelming and indisputable records of women's
involvement in agriculture, few of them are employed in agricul-
tural extension work. Those women who are agricultural exten-
sionists remain a very slim proportion of the world-wide extension
Overall figures indicate that about 3 percent of
agricultural extension personnel in Africa are women,
23 percent in Asia and Oceania, and 14 percent in
Latin America and the Carribbean, with a world-
wide average of 19 percent ... Of these female
extensionists, approximately 41 percent are en-
gaged in home economics-related programs.
(Berger et al, 1984: 58).
Persuasive reasons have been presented to encourage an increase
in the number of women agricultural extensionists so that
agricultural services may reach rural women farmers. Ashby notes
in support of increased numbers of women in extension, "The
most effective extension agents are those who are most like their
clients in all respects except technical competence" (Ashby 1981:
170). Rogers asserts that women have a demonstrated advantage
in contacting rural women,. even when they are from a different
cultural group (Rogers, 1984: 22). Both authors assume that,
for women, gender is a critical similarity to enhance the flow
of agricultural information and support from extensionist to target
Ashby also argues that women must be a target group for
agricultural extension and not simply for home economics
instruction. When women become involved in extension work with
rural women, too often their instruction is dominated by home
economics, health, and kitchen gardening (Ashby, 1981: 169).
Writing about home economic personnel generally and criticizing
their efficacy as extension trainers, Jiggins notes:
Home economics staff, presumed to adequately
meet rural women's needs, are nearly always fewer
than agricultural extension workers and many countries
have no such cadres. Since most Home Economics staffs
have little technical training relevant to farming
(home gardening is usually as close as they get),
they are rarely effective as agricultural extension
workers (Jiggins, 1984: 169).
Jiggins' reservations were shared by participants in a workshop
on "Women and Agricultural Extension," meeting in Vanuatu in 1984:
"[One] cannot expect someone trained in women's development
and home economics to be an effective agriculture extension
officer" (Douglas, 1984: 7).
Although she agrees there is a pressing need to include
women in agricultural extension development efforts, Rogers
cautions against "women only" projects of any kind. She notes
an "alibi effect."
Special segregated projects for women not only
provide an excuse for failure to integrate all
development projects: they are also ammunition
for counter-attacks by male officials. Several
of those I encountered in the field offices of
international development agencies commented
caustically on the fact that women were asking too
much: equal access to the existing projects as
well as additional projects for women only ....
Generally speaking, they seemed to be using the
special projects to attack the demand for equal
access to major projects, rather than the other
way round (Rogers 1980: 102).
She also questions whether programs for women's economic development
receive adequate financial support. All too often they are re-
garded as low-priority and consequently inadequately funded
(Rogers 1980: 83).
We have, then, three separate issues debated in recent
literature on women's roles as agricultural extensionists: First,
are women extensionists able to communicate better than men with
rural women? Second, can female extensionists be effective
actors for women's rural development when their training has
been in home economics? Finally, are extension efforts which are
directed exclusively at women hamstrung by discrimination in
financing and other kinds of support?
These issues are particularly crucial to explore because
of recent trends in agricultural extension offices. Inspired by
a hunch that women as agricultural extensionists are best able to
reach rural women, many agricultural ministries are seeking to
increase the number of women they employ in this capacity. Yet,
as Berger et al have pointed out, specific evidence on women
extensionists' ability to communicate well or to rural women is
not available. There has been very little research on women's
roles, effectiveness, and strengths as extension agents (Berger
et al, 1984: ii). This paper, generated by anthropological field-
work, will address these three concerns in the context of the
South Pacific where a number of women are now employed in
agricultural extension efforts. While doing so, it will describe
and analyze the roles of South Pacific women working as
agricultural extension agents.
Research was done in Fiji, Tonga, Western Samoa, and Vanuatu.
The first three had been included in an East-West Center (EWC)
and ISNAR (International Service for National Agricultural
Research) project on "Information and Knowledge Exchange Among
Agricultural Research, Dissemination and Producer Systems in
Selected South Pacific Island Nations." Vanuatu, the fourth
country, was included because it was most familiar to me.
Because of the circumscribed length of this paper, I will consider
only data from Fiji and Tonga, which contribute to the debate
on the issues noted. Prior EWC-ISNAR studies of the research
and extension systems of these two countries formed a useful
baseline for this further research on women and their part in
diffusing agricultural knowledge.
The original inspiration for this research was the lack of
information on these topics. But as fieldwork developed, the
research became more and more a test and refutation of my own
original hypothesis that women as extensionists would be better
suited than men to reach rural women and improve their develop-
TWO COUNTRY SYSTEMS
At first glance, Fijian women working in agricultural extension
appear admirably prepared to provide agricultural support for
rural women. Most of them were praised by their supervisors as
good workers, better than many of their male counterparts. All
of the wemen are well-educated, graduates of secondary schools, who
hold either a diploma or a degree in agriculture. In actuality,
though, only one of the eight women interviewed is still working
partially with farm women; the others (out of a total of nine
female agriculture extensionists) are working principally with
men. While most of the older women in extension began their
careers working exclusively withrural women, those recruited in
the last decade have never worked with "farmers' wives" Las they
The changes in these women's work roles and target groups
have been partly influenced by alterations in training policy
since the first women were hired. All but one of the women
interviewed had trained at the Fiji College Agriculture (FCA),
graduating with a diploma. The first few women to be admitted
to the college in 1963 for a two-year program were educated
exactly like male students. However, from 1965 until 1972 policy
changed and they were instructed in home economics instead of
agricultural engineering. Their special training took place off
campus at the South Pacific Commission's Community Education Training
Centre (CETC). CETC trains women as community workers in nutrition,
community health, maternal and child care, clothing, and income
generation. Kitchen gardens are also kept by students but
agriculture is not the Centre's emphasis.
In 1970 Marieta Rigamoto, the first woman graduate of FCA, re-
turned from overseas training for a degree, and was appointed
supervisor of the women extensionists who were working principally
with women farmers at that time. As she phrased it, "I used to
visit the girls in their field sites to see how they were getting
on." In 1974 Mrs. Rigamoto-was drafted away from agricultural
extension to serve on the Public Service Commission. By this
time her influence had led to a change back to equal instruction
for women and men at FCA. It is not entirely clear why the
College discontinued home economics education for women in
1974. Some sources suggested that this was done because of
concerns for equity for women students.
At the present time, opinions differ about which of the two
programs was the more desirable course for women. Most women
who had taken the home economics training expressed regret that
they had not also had machinery training; one had subsequently
taken a machinery course after graduation and found it helpful.
They perceived agricultural engineering as an important course
which might have helped raise their credibility with male
farmers. On the other hand, a more recent graduate who took
agricultural engineering noted that she would have been glad
to miss it. She remarked that, with one another female in the
class, she had regularly been given buckets and brushes to clean
the dirty engine parts while the "boys" had put the parts together.
This work merely reinforced her initial disinterest in the course.
This graduate argued that agricultural engineering should be
optional rather than compulsory for all students.
.The theory behind it being a requirement was that
workers could help the farmer if his equipment
broke down. That might have been the case
ten or fifteen years ago. Now farmers have their
own mechanics. Everything is up-to-date. They
don't need field officers telling them about
equipment. I wouldn't dream of advising a farmer
about his farm machinery. They know exactly-
what's wrong. They've been doing it for so many
Another woman extensionist who had taken the home economics
training at CETC argued in favor of resuming this training. She
thought that this background had served her very well by helping
her liaison with rural women. Today she deals with men farmers,
but she attributed her success in dealing with men as well as
women to her early rapport with women, stemming from the home
economics advice she was able to give.
Men listening to women, it was not done. It was
not in our culture. So taking that [CETC] course,
I think it was appropriate for [women] extension
workers. Because I had to create rapport by
going through the women. I took it that way.
...They terminated [the CETC training] because they
were thinking of inequality with men, this sort
of thing. But I didn't realize that most of the
support to perform on the ground was from home
economics. And things like hand plowing with the
bullocks and horses, I didn't know this from
school. But those women I was working with, they
knew. Even putting a bridle on a horse, and all
those sorts of things there, I learned those things
from them. (Home economics] was my way of approaching.
At this point it should be briefly noted that if equity
was the motive behind equal training of all students at FCA,
the same concern for equality did not really follow the women
extensionists after they left FCA. Women were disheartened
by lack of promotion in the extension service, while their male
colleagues and contemporaries moved ahead. They insisted that
they needed extra credentials to be promoted. For this reason,
a senior woman recommended that young women extensionists aim
to acquire a degree in addition to the usual diploma. This
extra credential would strengthen their claims for advancement.
At present, they tend to be overlooked. One extension administrator
who had trouble remembering how many women were in his department,
referred to them as the "forgotten ladies."
Whatever the reasons for the training program changes, they
were not solely responsible for the re-direction of women
extensionists toward male farmers. When questioned about the
virtually ubiquitous targeting of men farmers by women currently
in extension, a department administrator expressed no surprise.
"Our women are just like anyone else," he said. "They want to work
with those who decide and produce!"
When the women extensionists themselves were asked why they
worked with men rather than women, only one indicated that this
was her preference; She preferred working with men because she
found women farmers slow to respond to advice, while men, if
supervised, did things quickly. Others cited reasons like the
Department of Agriculture's emphasis on cash crops and targeted
crop yields which tended to put them in contact with male rather
than female farmers. Meanwhile,local women farmers complained
that they received no help with subsistence crops.
The women extensionisis, like their male colleagues, were
also responsible for loan assessments. This, too, put them
in touch with more men than women in rural areas. They pointed
out that women, although eligible for loans, rarely applied for them
because they did not have enough information or feel qualified
to do so. Although women farmers were eligible to apply for
credit, their applications were more often turned down than those
A senior cocoa officer explained that women never showed up
at their meetings; hence her cocoa development work addressed
mainly men even though women were a vital labor force in cocoa
processing. The inaccessibility of the women farmers was a
concern which troubled her.
Fiji data definitely suggest that women are not inherently
better than men at reaching rural women farmers on behalf of
agricultural extension. The caveats noted by Berger et al appear
to be substantiated by the Fijian situation.
Ultimately, the effectiveness of extension agents--
whether women or men--in reaching and assisting women
farmers will probably depend on the features of the
extension system in which they operate and the
quality of the message they have to extend. Individual
extension agents, whatever their gender, will be
constrained by the parameters of the existing extension
system--its focus, the institutional framework that
defines it, the delivery mechanisms in use, and
personal issues (other than gender). In particular,
the ability to reach large numbers of women farmers
in a meaningful way will depend on how these factors
shape the interaction of the extension service with
smaller farmers (Berger et al, 1984: 73-74).
If women agricultural extension agents are not delivering
agricultural information and assistance to rural women farmers,
is there any other section of the Fijian national government
that is? The response to this question brings us to the second
issue addressed in this paper, the issue of home economics training
as an effective road to agricultural extension.
The Women's Interests Office, part of the Ministry of Rural
Development, specifically targets women as its focus. Founded
in 1960, this office is run today by a home economist who
supervises staff that run courses on specific subjects for each
quarter of the year: 1) leadership awareness; 2) clothing,
textiles and nutrition; 3) family education (childcare); and
4) craft development and marketing. In the view of the office's
supervisor, their departments had always had strong ties with
agriculture. Once a year a course was organized on vegetable
gardening and the office would request a woman extensionist
from the Department of Agriculture (the same one every year)
to teach it. One of the Women's Interests Officers is a graduate
of FCA in livestock specialty but I was told that she was not
employed as an agricultural specialist.
When asked about the Women's Interests Office and its
ability to convey agricultural information, women agricultural
extensionisfs denied that their department was closely tied to
this other office. One of them suggested that the
Office's vegetable gardening course should be taught in rotation
by all the women working in agricultural extension. She thought
this might have a feedback effect, increasing the sensitivity
of women agricultural agents to problems for women in agriculture.
The general consensus was that Women's Interests Office was not
trained to fill the gap left by female extension agents when
they were directed away from an exclusive focus on women prior
The third issue raised at the beginning of this paper, that
of discrimination against programs directed exclusively for women,
cannot be answered on the basis of the Fiji data. With respect
to Tonga, however, the other.country to be considered, all three
of the issues raised earlier are partially addressed by data gathered.
The Tongan extension program for rural women looks initially
just.as undistinguished as the Fijian female agents appeared
promising in terms of their respective abilities to reach rural
women farmers. With one exception, all of the women extensionists
in Tonga's Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forests (MAFF)
work exclusively with local women.
These thirteen women are much less educated than.the Fijian
women in agricultural extension. Known as "school leavers," most
began work in the Department of Agriculture after the fourth
form (roughly tenth grade), which is two years shy of the
secondary training usual for Fijian counterparts. Second, they
are less trained. Until recently, home demonstrators received
about a year of post-high school training, provided by the
Department. Finally, their training was principally home
economics until recently; there was little agricultural instruction.
Before last year, they were referred to as Home Demonstrators,
working in the all-women Home Economics Section of the Department
Contary to first impressions, however, there are some exciting
changes taking place in Tonga which relate to the issues in this
paper. In the last five years, Tonga's Home Economics Section
has been renamed and re-educated to gear its work towards income-
generating projects for women in agriculture.
One guiding force for this transformation has been
Elenoa 'Amanaki, a Fijian woman who was trained at FCA. Mrs. 'Amanaki
came to Tonga as the spouse of a Tongan fellow student at the College.
As a diploma-holder, she was better qualified than most men
entering Tonga's Department of Agriculture and, thus, she was
hired in 1965 as the first woman (and to date the only woman)
in the agricultural extension section. As she later noted, "she
had hoped to propel other women into agriculture, but traditional
constraints and a move to push women into home economics have
kept very few women in agriculture" (Staff Newsletter, 1982: 4).
In fact, she herself was not given an actual district extension
assignment until 1976. In the interim between 1965 and 1976,
she was principal and instructor in the training program for
men joining the extension staff and women becoming Home Demonstrators
in the Home Economics Section established by the Department of
Agriculture in 1967.
When Mrs. 'Amanaki finally received an extension posting,
she had difficulty with credibility initially. When she called her
first meeting with banana growers, no one came. Through her
skillfull use of radio, newspaper and personal communication, she
overcame grower reluctance to accept her and she is acknowledged
to be a major force in improving Tonga's banana production. In
her extension work, Mrs. 'Amanaki was successful in reaching
women as well as men. When she left her district to become head
of the extension service, a number of women had begun work on
banana plantations for the first time.
Meanwhile, Home Demonstrators in the Home Economics Section
of the Department of Agriculture were being trained in the diverse
directions characteristic of home economics. Their familiarity
with agriculture was limited to kitchen gardens and they were
expected to consult the extension staff for major problems such
as plant diseases. At first some Home Demonstrators were
trained in a ten-month course given by the Department. After
1975, this course was stopped and most of the Home Demonstrators
were being sent to Fiji for the year-long CETC home economics
and rural development program. After training, they devoted
their extension efforts to home improvements, advising local
women on kitchen and bathroom renovation as well as the more
conventional home economic interests such as cooking and
In the early 1980's the conjunction of several factors led
to this Section's re-orientation toward agricultural extension
work. First, a survey of Tongan women's needs revealed that
lack of money was a major barrier to home renovations or develop-
ments of any kind and that this great need for cash was not being
sufficiently met by occasional fund-raisers such as bake sales,
concerts, and dances. Second, the Home Demonstrators found
themselves increasingly competing with newly arrived private
aid agencies (the Foundation for Peoples of the South Pacific
and others) which were also advising local women on home improve-
ments. Third, the destructive effects of Hurricane Isaac, which
ruined most subsistence crops in 1982, led to emergency distribution
of free seeds and planting instructions for European, quick-
maturing vegetables. This very successful UN-funded kitchen
garden effort was principally engineered by the Home Demonstrators.
Their efforts tapped the energies of Tongan women as a significant
source of local food crops.
Acting on its new view of the Home Demonstrators' capabilities,
the Department of Agriculture applied for and was granted $32,000
from the UN Funds for the Women's Decade. This grant has become
a revolving Fund; $20,000 of the money is available for low-
interest (6%/annum) loans of as much as $1500 to women's groups
who are launching income-generating agricultural projects. To
receive a loan, a women's group must have a history of successful
fund raising, have no other debts, and be able to repay the loan
within twenty-four months.
When it received these funds, the Department renamed the
Home Economics Section the Women's Development Section and Home
Demonstrators have become Women's Development Officers (WD Officers).
Each group of women desiring a.loan drafts a project proposal
with the assistance of the WD officer appointed to their district.
The WD Officers have recently attended a special training course
on proposal writing to help them with this, and further courses
on this skill are planned. Successful projects are then monitored
by the WD Officers who guided the proposal. At first the WD Officers
will each carry two or three of such projects but it is expected
that their load will eventually be five or six of them.
In addition to proposal writing, the WD Officers have recently
attended a five-week course, "Introduction to Tongan Agriculture,"
also taken by men joining the agricultural extension service. This
course was designed to aid them with their increased roles in
agriculture; none of the WD Officers will be attending CETC home
economics courses in Fiji in the future.
.As well as. to these promising formal changes in name and
roles of the WD Section, there are other sanguine developments in
the MAFF. A Tongan woman who just received a degree in agriculture
from the University of the South Pacific has been appointed
Training Coordinator for the Ministry. Still another woman,
formerly a Home Demonstrator, has received a scholarship to
return to college where she will study for a diploma in agriculture.
The Department of Agriculture is monitoring her progress. If
she does well, they suggest there will be more chances for other
"school leavers" (those who leave high school after the Fourth
Form) in the WD Section to receive further education.
In all of the four countries researched in 1985, Tonga's
WD Officers are most effective in meeting the needs of women
farmers through cash cropping. The ratio of WD Officers to
male agricultural extension agents is also the most favorable:
One of them for every three men in comparison to Fiji's one
woman for every thirteen male extensionists. The WD Office's
central location -- just across the parking lot from the offices
of agricultural extension makes it easy for the two sections to
collaborate on plans. This contrasts sharply with the remote
location of the Women's Interests Office in Fiji, far from the
The Tongan picture is not all rosy, however. Transport is
not equitably distributed-. The WD Section's landrover has been
inoperable for six months and may not be fixed at all. Several
of the women interviewed complained that they had always been last
to receive transport. A few resorted regularly to agricultural
extension transport, which was a fairly easy alternative for
them since eight of the thirteen WD Officers are married to men
employed by the MAFF.
The new training, seemingly equal with that of the male
agricultural extensionist is also not quite as egalitarian
as it appears. The women's recent course on Tongan agriculture,
also given to new male extensionists, was shortened from the usual
seven to five weeks and also diluted in content. The instructors
did this, I was told, because they thought the usual course
would be too difficult for the women. Overseas training is also
something WD Officers perceived themselves to be the last to
receive. They also noted that they were promoted less quickly
than their male counterparts in agricultural extension. This
last complaint may be answered soon, because Mrs. 'Amanaki has
recently been appointed to the MAFF's Promotions Board to ensure
equality of promotion for women employees.
The WD Officers also face criticism in the wider society.
One director of a private agency providing home improvement
aid to women insisted that the Tongan woman's place was in the
home, making tapa cloth, weaving mats. She thought the WD Officers
were sending local women in improper directions through incentives
for cash crop projects. She also predicted tht the WD Officers'
activity in agriculutre would disappear as soon as aid money
vanished. Others grumbled that the Revolving Fund, by encouraging
women to participate actively in cash cropping, is allowing women
to take jobs away from men. By doing so, they are encouraging
the dissolution of their men folk who resort to more kava parties
In conclusion, the Tongan situation shows that home economics
instructors can be, at least in part, re-tooled to provide valued
agricultural extension guidance to rural women farmers. Other
aspects of the WD Officers' experience, however, shows us that programs
run exclusively by and for women continue to face discrimination,
in this case lack of transport,.equal training, and promotion
for staff members.
The data from Fiji and Tonga suggest that home economics
training need not be a closed door to agricultural extension
work with women. But they also tell us that the female gender
does not necessarily provide an agricultural extension agent
with ready access to rural women. The delivery system in
place, as Berger et al have noted, can cross-cut or nullify
any advantage gender may bestow upon an extension agent.
Men may be as facile as women in extension work with local
women. Data from Kenya suggest that male extension agents
there could communicate with rural women on almost any topic.
Provided the information to be conveyed did not deal specifically
with sexual issues such as family planning, male extension
agents were able to convey information to women's groups and
enjoyed doing so (Muzaale and Leonard, 1985: 26).
Elsewhere in the Pacific area, a study of women's extension
in Papua New Guinea discovered that local identity was at least
as significant as gender in extension effectiveness. Women
extensionists found that they were most successful with women
farmers if they were not working in their home district. On the
other hand, the situation with men was just the opposite. The
women extensionists found that, "In dealing with men, the women
who worked outside their own District had many more problems
than women who worked in their own District" (Zimmerman, 1975:
Class differences can also work against any asset an
agent may expect by virtue of her or his gender. One Fijian
agricultural extensionist described this barrier as education:
The women thought we were too educated .... Some-
times, I used to go sit down with them instead of
sitting on a chair. I used to go sit down with them
on the floor, to make ourselves come down to them
and let them know we are not highly educated; We are
very low and we are just trying to help the people,
In Tonga, too, it was mentioned that some WD Officers had
to be reminded to get out of their land rovers when they visited
rural women, to go sit under a tree with them to break the ice.
Apparently, then, despite the lower educational status of Tongan
WD Officers in comparison with the more highly trained women
in'Fiji, they still perceived their status to be higher than
that of their target group.
Commenting on Pacific women working in agricultural extension,
Village women await the help of trained sisters
with open arms but they are very wary of young sophisti-
cates who do not wish to get their hands dirty. Our
colleges must take caution against creating women who
have little in common with, and even less interest in,
the men and women they are meant to help (Ogi, 1982: 3).
In view of this research, the motives of agricultural
administrative officials, who are not seeking to increase the
number of women extensionists in their departments could be
questioned. There can be no doubt that hiring women into
extension is necessary in the interest of equity. But the dif-
ficulties experienced by both Tongan and Fijian women once they
enter extension -- difficulties in promotion in particular --
suggest that equity may not be the reasoning or motive for those
who hire them.
Based on virtually no data, administrators have assumed that
women are best at extension work with other women. The example
of Fiji and the issues of locality, class, and delivery systems
suggest that their assumptions about gender similarities may be
premature. Let me then raise another possible explanation,
illuminated once again by a comment from Ogi on the experience
of other Pacific women in Papua New Guinea.
There is a long-standing belief cum excuse propounded
and perpetuated by a majority of the nation's male
agricultural officers. "We are," they say, "the
wrong people to work with women, for culturally there
lies a deep baret [gully] between us. It is difficult
if not impossible for us to do extension work with women."
Documentation by important national writers and even
the observations of some foreign anthropologists
constantly cite the daily lives of'men and women as
"co-workers" in "developing" their villages. This
is true from sago processing through gardening to
house building. Why then, can our nation's male
development field workers not work alongside women?...
...Ask different people why women are being trained
in agriculture? Is it the opening up of another
career or profession for women? Is it the long
overdue realization that women are traditionally the
nation's best farmers? Or is it training women to
work with rural women so that the men themselves
don't have to do it? (Emphasis mine) (Ogi, 1982: 2).
The best answer to Ogi's challenge, if it is not to become
a conclusion to the discussion on these issues, would be full
and egalitarian support for programs where women attempt to
provide agricultural assistance for women farmers. This would
entail more transport, promotions and better training for
WD Officers in Tonga. In Fiji, where women replicate the work
roles of male extensionist, positive change would require
equity of promotion for women extension agents. But, even more
important, it would mean a general overhaul of the extension
delivery system so that rural women farmers once again have
access to the agricultural assistance taken away from them
a decade ago when the efforts of women working as extensionists
were redirected and compromised by a restrictive attention to
cash crops and targeted yields.
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