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Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women asks Bulgaria about domestic violence and the Istanbul Convention

Committee on Elimination of Discrimination against Women

CEDAW/20/9
19 February 2020

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women today examined the eighth periodic report of Bulgaria on the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.  Experts raised domestic violence as an issue of concern, as well the ratification of the Istanbul Convention.

Committee Experts welcomed the creation of the National Council on Equality between Women and Men and the progress made in decreasing the gender pay gap.  They said that Bulgaria was one of the most successful countries in Europe in terms of digital transformation.

Domestic violence in Bulgaria was an issue of concern, according to the Committee Experts.  Even though more than 60 women were killed in domestic violence incidents during 2017 and 2018, Bulgaria had not yet ratified the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combatting violence against women and domestic violence (the Istanbul Convention).  In fact, it was not a secret that Bulgaria was one of its most ardent opponents, an Expert said.

The Experts also discussed what they called systematic attacks against non-governmental organizations, especially those that worked on the issues of domestic violence and gender, hate speech against defenders of women’s rights, and discrimination against Roma women and girls.

Georg Georgiev, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria, introducing the report, said that domestic violence was one of the most widespread and heinous offences and one where victims were often let down by the legal system.  Work had started on the amendment of the Protection of Domestic Violence Act to align it with the European legislative practices, strengthen the protection and provide support to victims.

Although the 2018 ruling of the Constitutional Court on the incompatibility of the Istanbul Convention with the Constitution was binding, this did not mean that Bulgaria had stopped fighting domestic violence, said the delegation.  Bulgaria had criminalized all forms of domestic violence, put in place a comprehensive programme of action, and implemented capacity building of judges and prosecutors to deal with the issue.
 
Unfortunately, the Government did not have official information about any pressure on non-governmental organizations, which were highly valued and considered important partners.  The non-governmental sector was protected and the Government would take immediate action on any alerts received.

For the first time in the Committee’s history, a national human rights institution had an opportunity to address the forum.  Diana Kovatcheva, Ombudsman of Bulgaria, highlighted two key issues, namely violence against women and the rights of Roma women.  At least two women per month lost their lives to domestic violence in 2019 and more than 30,000 women had called the national hotline asking for help, which showed that domestic violence was a large-scale problem.

In his concluding remarks, Mr. Georgiev stressed that Bulgaria accorded the highest priority to advancing the rights of women and protecting them from violence.

Bandana Rana, Committee Vice-Chair, in her concluding remarks, commended Bulgaria for its efforts and thanked the delegation for the constructive dialogue.

The delegation of Bulgaria consisted of representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Labour and Social Policy, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Interior, Council of Ministers and the Permanent Mission of Bulgaria to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The Committee will issue its concluding observations on the report of Bulgaria at the end of its seventy-fifth session on 28 February.  Those, and other documents relating to the Committee’s work, including reports submitted by States parties, can be found on the session’s webpage.

The webcast of the Committee’s public meetings can be accessed at http://webtv.un.org/.

The Committee will reconvene at 10 a.m.  on Thursday, 20 February, to consider the sixth periodic report of the Republic of Moldova (CEDAW/C/MDA/6).

Report

The Committee has before it the eighth periodic report of Bulgaria (CEDAW/C/BGR/8) submitted under the simplified reporting procedure.

Presentation of the Report

GEORG GEORGIEV, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria, introducing the report, said that since its last review by the Committee in 2012, Bulgaria had significantly improved its legal system.  Gender equality, women empowerment, and the fight against discrimination were amongst the key priorities in the field of human rights.  Core Bulgarian legislation warranted full parity between women and men and treated them equally in all spheres of life, while promoting equality between women and men and non-discrimination were the main objectives of the Government’s executive programme on sustainable development. 

ZORNITZA ROUSINOVA, Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Policy of Bulgaria, said that Bulgaria had adopted legislation on equality between women and men and on social services and had amended the protection against discrimination.  The National Council of Equality between Women and Men within the Council of Ministers was a key institutional mechanism on gender equality.  In the changing world of work, ensuring equal access to employment was one of the main priorities. 

Financial incentives were in place for employers who created jobs and hired single or adoptive parents of children under the age of five.  Bulgaria had taken measures to create conditions for work-life balance - opportunities for the use of childcare by both parents and access to childcare services, and a long maternity leave, while the gender pay gap was decreasing.   In 2019, Bulgaria had the sixth highest gender equality index in the European Union and had emerged as a champion of women’s rights in the labour environment.

GEORG GEORGIEV, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria, said that another focus area of the Government’s actions was domestic violence, one of the most widespread and heinous offences and one where victims were often let down by the legal system.  Bulgaria was systematically improving its legislative framework and in 2019 had amended the Penal Code to strengthen the legal basis for punishing the perpetrators.  Also in 2019, an interministerial working group had been set up under the Ministry of Justice to draft proposals for the amendment of the Protection of Domestic Violence Act.  The amendment aimed to strengthen the protection and support to victims and align the law with European legislative practices. 

The 2019 amendments to the Penal Code had aggravated the crimes against youth and crimes against marriage; thus, anyone who lived together with a person under the age of 16 would be prosecuted, regardless of whether they were married or not.  The elimination of discrimination against women played a strategic role in the curricula of the National Institute of Justice, which offered initial and compulsory training of the judicial and prosecutorial staff.  Methodological guidelines for actions of police authorities in cases of domestic violence had been developed and approved.  In November 2019, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary had simultaneously launched an international awareness raising campaign on domestic violence.

In conclusion, Mr. Georgiev said that Bulgaria was mindful of the challenges ahead and would continue the consistent efforts to combat violence against women, protect the victims, prosecute perpetrators and further strengthen the existing legal frameworks.

Statement by the Bulgarian National Human Rights Institution

DIANA KOVATCHEVA, Ombudsman of Bulgaria, highlighted two key issues, namely violence against women and the rights of Roma women. 

The 2018 Constitutional Court ruling that had declared the Istanbul Convention incompatible with the Constitution had hindered its ratification, she said, and stressed the need for further legislative measures.  One such measure would be to incriminate all forms of domestic violence, including sexual and economic violence.  The statistics showed that in 2019, at least two women per month lost their lives to domestic violence and more than 30,000 women had called the national hotline asking for help.  Domestic violence was a large-scale problem, said Ms. Kovatcheva.

Turning to the rights of Roma women, the Ombudsperson expressed concern about the existing deeply entrenched stereotypes and prejudices on the role of Roma women and girls in the family and society.  Domestic violence was considered a norm, as were the low level of education, school dropout, early marriage, poverty and unemployment.  Bulgaria should adopt multi-sectoral measures to successfully address those issues.   

Response of Bulgaria to the Remarks of the National Human Rights Institution

Responding to the Ombudsperson’s remarks, the delegation said that the Ministry of Justice had been actively working to implement the Ombudsman’s recommendations and had, among others, decided to set up the common coordination mechanism to combat domestic violence.  It also considered that psychological violence should be incriminated in any form without waiting for it to become systematic, therefore this issue would be included in the work of the working group on the amendment to the Protection of Domestic Violence Act.  The Government was building the capacity of judges, prosecutors and social workers dealing with cases of domestic violence.  The focus was on Roma women, women from remote and rural communities and children.

The Government was expanding the network of shelters for victims of domestic violence and had set the goal to increase the number of places and availability of services.  The new Social Services Act promoted an integrated and multidisciplinary approach of providing services to victims.  Another area of action was focused on supporting Roma girls to stay in school and to integrate in the labour market.  Over the last two years, more than 40,000 had been kept in school.

Questions by Committee Experts

At the beginning of the dialogue, a Committee Expert took positive note of Bulgaria’s efforts to protect the rights of women and promote gender equality, including the creation of the National Council on Equality between Women and Men, decreasing the pay gap, and the status A accreditation for the Ombudsman of Bulgaria.

Domestic violence, trafficking in persons and forced marriage remained a concern.  During the 2017-2018 period, more than 60 women had been killed in domestic violence, and this was only the figure of registered deaths. 

The problems of corruption, waste and lack of transparency had led to the paralysis and blockade of democratic institutions.  According to Transparency International, Bulgaria was one of the most corrupt countries in the European Union. 

The Expert also highlighted the difficulties of women in accessing justice and free legal aid.

Non-governmental organizations were under systematic attack and hate speech, especially those that worked on domestic violence and gender issues.  Several non-governmental organizations had reported that their budgets had been cut after they had initiated a campaign for the ratification of the Istanbul Convention. 

Replies by the Delegation

The delegation said that all the principles of the Convention had been integrated in the national legislation.

Bulgaria had passed a law on the National Council on Equality between Women and Men, which was, inter alia, in charge of gender equality monitoring and the coordination of the drafting of the report on gender equality.  The national strategy for the promotion of equality between women and men also included mechanisms for monitoring and control of performance.  The development of the gender equality monitoring system was one of the activities under the ongoing project funded by the European Union. 

Bulgaria had made progress in strengthening its legal framework.  Everyone, regardless of their gender, had guaranteed access to justice and to legal aid.  Free legal aid was available to persons entitled to social benefits and those in social institutions, victims of human trafficking, refugees and asylum seekers.  This included consultation, preparation of files to bring the case to the courts, and procedural representation. 

In 2019, Bulgaria had expanded access to free legal aid in the regions.  The National Office for Legal Aid had taken measures to enhance the qualification of lawyers working with victims of crime and had introduced unified standards for legal aid to victims of domestic violence and human trafficking. 

Sexual violence was dealt with under the domestic violence law, and it did not matter whether rape occurred in or outside of marriage.  As for complaints, the delegation said that there had been 4,098 domestic violence proceedings in 2018 and 2,742 proceedings in 2019.  Most had been completed within three months.   Some victims had withdrawn their complaints, which was within their right.  The law on the rights of victims of crimes was in place and the Office of the Prosecutor had set up an organization to inform victims of their rights.

Forced and child marriages were criminalized and carried a penalty of up to three years in prison for anyone who forced a person into such a marriage.  Forced partnership with a person under the age of 16 was sanctioned too.  In 2019, the amendment of the Penal Code had introduced harsher penalties for crimes related to marriage and had strengthened the protection of children as a result.  In many cases, a crime that involved a minor was perpetrated by a relative or close person.

Unfortunately, the Government did not have official information about any pressure on non-governmental organizations.  Should it receive such alerts the Ministry of Interior would take immediate action.  The non-governmental organization sector was among the most protected and the Government highly valued the dialogue with civil society organizations, which were among its most important partners.

The Ministry of Justice had a budget of about 450,000 Bulgarian lev for the prevention of domestic violence.  The adoption of the national programme on the issue was expected by the end of March; it would have its own budget, which would be accessible to non-governmental organizations. 

Questions by Committee Experts

Turning to the national gender machinery, the Experts noted that the National Council on Gender Equality was lacking capacity to have a positive impact and promote the implementation of the gender equality agenda.  Furthermore, the Commission for Protection against Discrimination also needed support to become a stronger, proactive and visible human rights entity. 

An Expert asked about the main directions of the development of the State’s central women rights protection policy, the steps to increase gender budgeting in the State and municipal institutions, and measures to overcome challenges faced by the Ombudsman, including staff and budget shortages.

Temporary special measures should be used to overcome the disadvantages experienced by specific groups of women who were subjected to multiple forms of discrimination - women from ethnic minorities, Roma women, women with disabilities, rural women, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex women, and migrant women.

Replies by the Delegation

Bulgaria had adopted the Gender Equality Act in April 2016 and had set up the National Council on Equality between Women and Men in the Council of Ministers as a coordinating and advisory body that supported the implementation of the national gender equality policy. 

The National Council provided opinions on draft strategic and legal documents related to gender equality to ensure that they corresponded to the requirements of the Convention.  It proposed specific measures for the promotion of gender equality and participated in the development of indicators for the monitoring of the gender equality strategy.  Members were representatives of the Government, municipal authorities, employers and employees, and non-governmental organizations.  Therefore, it was difficult to say that it did not have the capacity to act as it had equal representation and participation of all stakeholders.

Regional gender coordinators had received training and had been connected into a network to support the implementation of gender equality policies and strategies.  The Ministry of Labour and Social Policy and the Commission on the Protection of Discrimination were implementing a European capacity-building project in the area of gender equality, which targeted local levels of government.

The Commission on the Protection of Discrimination was an independent equality body whose main task was to deal with complaints of discrimination and support the implementation of the anti-discrimination legislation.  The Commission regularly invoked the Convention in its rulings.  In 2018, it had received 27 complaints of discrimination on the grounds of ethnic origin, 19 on the grounds of gender, three on the grounds of sexual orientation, three on the grounds of sexual harassment and one on the grounds of harassment at work. 

In 2017, there had been 25 complaints of discrimination on the grounds of ethnic origin, 20 on the grounds of gender, one on the grounds of sexual orientation and one on the grounds of sexual harassment.  In 2016, the complaints had been as follows: 42 on the grounds of ethnic origin, 27 on the grounds of gender, seven on the grounds of sexual orientation, five on the grounds of sexual harassment and six on the grounds of harassment at work. 

The 2018 amendments to the Ombudsman Act had expanded the competence of the institution, including to consider complaints for rights violations by private citizens, make recommendations and proposals to restore rights and freedoms, and act as an intermediary on behalf of the affected person.  The institution enjoyed the highest level of legitimacy.  The Ombudsperson was nominated by the National Assembly, which also voted on the institution’s budget.  In 2019, the budget stood at more than 3.3 million Bulgarian lev.

The Gender Equality Act provided for the use of temporary special measures, which were being implemented in the national strategy for gender equality.  Their use would continue until a balanced representation of women was achieved, especially disadvantaged women.  The Protection from Discrimination Act specifically stipulated that the use of temporary special measures was not discriminatory and that the different treatment of persons was legal in areas such as access to services, employment and other areas of life.

Questions by Committee Experts

Continuing the dialogue, an Expert took positive note of the acceptance by Bulgaria of the special recommendation of the Council of Europe on sexism and remarked that it had not yet been translated in Bulgarian.  He inquired about specific measures employed to fight sexism in the media, institutions and social networks, including on the websites of the various ministries and State institutions.  Hate speech against women human rights defenders and the absence of specific measures on the elimination of gender-based stereotypes continued to be of concern.

Another Expert expressed support for the recommendations that the Ombudsperson had made in relation to domestic violence and took positive note of the action that Bulgaria was taking to address the phenomenon.  She pointed that the domestic violence law could better take into account the history of domestic violence rather than focus only on most recent incidents.

It was not a secret that Bulgaria was one of the most ardent opponents of the Istanbul Convention [the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combatting violence against women and domestic violence] - what were the reasons for this opposition? 

Women and girls constituted the largest number of victims of trafficking in persons, especially sexual trafficking, internally and across the borders.  The lack of knowledge about trafficking in persons hampered victim identification, while an effective response was constrained by corruption.  Domestic servitude was an increasing form of exploitation, especially affecting Roma.  The sale of babies was a phenomenon among vulnerable communities, with 65 cases registered in 2018.

What was Bulgaria’s reaction to the statement that the Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography had issued at the end of her recent visit to the country?

Replies by the Delegation

Tackling gender stereotypes was a strategic priority and a formidable challenge.  The elimination of gender stereotypes had a legal basis in Bulgaria and represented a foundation of the national gender equality policy.  The anti-discrimination act and the instructions in the education sector called for the elimination of such stereotypes, and their removal from the curricula and teaching institutions at all levels of education.  There were joint efforts at all levels of government to overcome gender segregation in the labour market and provide equal entry pathways to women and men.  Steps were being taken to raise public awareness about pay, income and benefits, including in relation to pensions.  The national gender equality strategy included 20 measures to fight the stereotypes.

The Council of Electronic Media was monitoring programming for instances of sexism and special attention was given to preventing discrimination on the grounds of sex in line with the law.  It had adopted criteria for the assessment of unfavourable treatment and had removed several sexist commercials from the platforms and the channels.

A working group at the Ministry of Justice was working on strengthening protection orders and amending the domestic violence legislation to ensure that due attention was given to all acts of domestic violence regardless of when it had taken place.  The Constitutional Court decision on the incompatibility of the Istanbul Convention with the Constitution was binding.  This did not mean that Bulgaria had stopped fighting domestic violence – it had adopted a comprehensive programme of action and criminalized all forms of domestic violence; it was amending the domestic violence law and building the capacity of judges and prosecutors to deal with the issue. 

The delegation stressed the importance of expanding the network of crisis centres and especially the prevention of domestic violence.  There were 19 crisis centres for children with a capacity of 196 places.  There were also mother and baby units that provided shelter to victims of domestic violence.  Funding had been allocated for the opening of eight additional crisis centres.

The national anti-trafficking in persons commission had an annual budget of 400,000 Bulgarian lev; it also obtained European funding and support from other donors.  The legislative framework was fully in line with international standards.  There were training programmes for the police on the identification of victims of trafficking in persons.  Recently, a crisis centre for victims had been opened in Sofia.  The number of victims was on the decrease, with 75 women identified the previous year. 

The focus of the 2019 public campaign on human trafficking was on labour exploitation; there were also campaigns on forced labour, sexual exploitation, and the role of the private sector in combatting trafficking in human beings.  During the January to September 2019 period, there had been 46 convictions for trafficking in persons.  Recently, a Bulgarian criminal group that trafficked Bulgarians to France had been dismantled. 

Questions by Committee Experts

In the next round of questions, the Experts hailed Bulgaria’s engagement in the European Union and in the Human Rights Council.  It had exemplary successes in women’s participation in public life and was one of the most successful countries in Europe in terms of digital transformation.

Out of the 70 members of Bulgaria to the European Parliament, only six were women, women held only seven mayoral positions, and the number of women in Parliament was insufficient to ensure the societal transformation necessary to achieve full gender equality by 2030.  There was a need to expedite changes – adopt quotas, fight hate speech against women, and fully incorporate ethnic and cultural minorities and persons with disabilities in the society. 

Minority Roma and migrant women faced obstacles in registering the birth of their children, while children born to undocumented migrant women or asylum seekers who had not yet formulated an asylum request remained unregistered.  What steps were being taken to fight xenophobia and racist discourse against refugees and migrants and strengthen their social inclusion?

Replies by the Delegation

Responding to the questions and comments, the delegation said Bulgaria had a high-level of participation of women at the highest levels of Government and ranked fourth in the European Union in the number of women in leadership positions.  Women represented 70 per cent of employees in the financial and insurance sector, 67 per cent in the scientific sector, 80 per cent in education, health and social work, and 48 per cent in the Government.

There were 105 refugee women in shelters in Bulgaria and a clear procedure was in place for the registration of any birth.  The child would receive a birth certificate and would carry the mother’s nationality.  Only Bulgarian citizens could transmit nationality.  However, a child born to a stateless person would receive the Bulgarian citizenship.

The Government had been undertaking targeted measures to encourage women’s participation in public and political life, which had brought the country to the sixth position in Europe as far as the gender equality index was concerned.  Bulgaria’s gender equality strategies and policies were aligned with the standards of the European Union and the Council of Europe. 

Questions by Committee Experts

A Committee Expert expressed her concern at the mistreatment, and even death, of persons with disabilities in State institutions and at a clearly present gender-based component to the issue.  She asked about the independent monitoring of the situation in the institutions and about the criminal prosecution of the perpetrators of violence and abuse of persons with disabilities, including children.

Bulgaria had undertaken the education reform, which had seen, inter alia, the introduction of inclusive education and the adoption of the strategy for improving and promoting literacy.  Disparities, however, persisted between rural and urban areas and in the enrolment and retention of women at all levels of studies.  While early marriage used to hold Roma girls back from attending school, over the past 20 years the socioeconomic status of the family, the lack of financial means and early pregnancies had been the major obstacles.

One of the key obstacles to achieving gender equality in employment included gender segregation in occupations, both vertical – the higher the positions the lower the participation of women – and horizontal segregation, with women principally employed in health, education and social sectors.  While the law guaranteed equal pay for work of equal value, the gender pay gap stood at about 14 per cent.  Other factors at play were the lack of work-life balance, unequal distribution of family responsibilities, and sexual harassment in the workplace.

Considering the high out of pocket fees for the health system users, the Committee was concerned about access to health for the most disadvantaged women: those with disabilities, Roma, poor, refugee and migrant women.  The quality of maternal health services varied from one region to another and between rural and urban areas, while disrespectful treatment of pregnant and birthing women in some instances amounted to violence and abuse.  The Committee was concerned about surgeries performed on intersex babies and children before they reached the age of consent. 

Replies by the Delegation

The delegation stressed the importance accorded to the rights of children in care and said Bulgaria had developed a deinstitutionalization strategy for children with disabilities in State institutions.  The strategy for children with disabilities put accent on the support of inclusive education. 

Poverty, unemployment, travel abroad for work and early marriages were some of the reasons that explained school dropout of Roma children.  Contributing factors were lack of interest of parents and school segregation.  The national strategy for the prevention of school dropout had contributed not only to the retention of children, but to the enrolment of children who had never been to school.  In 2019, 4,600 children had returned to school and another 2,224 children who had never been in school had enrolled.

The ordinance for inclusive education provided for compulsory education in the Bulgarian language; it had introduced extra teaching hours for children with disabilities, which had received additional funding.  The delegation added that 316,000 schoolchildren had been involved in the science education for smart growth programme

The Labour Code guaranteed equal pay for work of equal value; this applied to pension insurances and contributions too.  Bulgaria was one of only a few countries that allowed for a long maternity leave and considered it as time in service.  The gender pay gap stood at 13.6 per cent, while the European average was 16 per cent – this was a result of targeted measures that the Government was taking to address the issue.  The pension age was being gradually increased and by 2037, women and men would retire at the same age.

The Constitution guaranteed equality in access to health.  Support was available to guarantee emergency, prevention and maternity services to persons without health insurance.  There were 140 Roma health mediators in 24 regions in the country.

Bulgaria, like other European Union Member States, did not intend to ratify the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.  The rights of migrant workers were protected by the existing European Union legislation and the national laws.

Questions by Committee Experts

In the final round of questions, Committee Experts referenced the difficult economic situation and the large proportion of the population – 24 per cent - that were at risk of poverty.  Most vulnerable were single parents, pensioners, Roma and other minorities, informal workers and stay-at-home mothers, noted the Experts.  They inquired about the efforts to promote female entrepreneurship.

Due to the lack of opportunities, many young rural women migrated towards cities or even abroad, and some were at risk of sexual exploitation.  Women with disabilities had little access to public lives and social programmes, while mothers of children with disabilities often sacrificed employment and were outside of the pension system.  Despite the €7.2 billion support from the European Union and the national Roma strategy, Roma women continued to suffer social exclusion and difficult access to services and justice.

Would Bulgaria amend the Family Code that prevented some persons with disabilities from entering into marriage, and prohibit mediation in divorce cases involving violence against women?  In spite of the efforts, the Committee was concerned that 36 per cent of Roma girls entered marriage under the age of 18 and that 3,252 girls under the age of 18 became mothers in 2019.

Replies by the Delegation
The Social Assistance Act defined vulnerable groups and provided for two types of benefits, one off and monthly.  Family benefits available to families in need of support included pregnancy benefits, given to 2,000 women; childbirth benefits, given to 63,000 children; twin and adoption benefits; benefits for children with disabilities; benefits for university students who were single mothers; and others.   Bulgaria was bringing broadband Internet to rural areas and trained rural women to diversify production and sell online. 

The delegation said that Bulgaria had taken legislative measures to put an end to early marriage.  There were no barriers to persons with disabilities entering a marriage.  A working group within the Ministry of Justice was considering the introduction of mandatory mediation in custody over children, and was considering the introduction of mediation and conciliation in divorce cases. 

Concluding Remarks

GEORG GEORGIEV, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria, in his concluding remarks, stressed that Bulgaria accorded the higher priority to advancing the rights of women and protecting them from violence.

BANDANA RANA, Committee Vice-Chair, in her concluding remarks, commended Bulgaria for its efforts and urged it to pay particular attention to the Committee’s concluding observations identified for immediate follow up.

 

 

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