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Inside Morocco’s digital divide: girls fighting for education in lockdown

While the internet has kept many going through coronavirus lockdowns, the digital divide could mean that many Moroccan students will fall behind.
Children sit in a classroom at a school in the Moroccan village of Taghzirt, in el-Haouz province in the High Atlas Mountains south of the capital of Marrakech, on March 4, 2016.
When using well-known search engines, one can find very few information about Taghzirt village. And while tourists from all around the world enjoy the sun warm days and the snow-covered view of the nearby mountains from Marrakesh, hundreds of villagers suffer from the harshness of winter and isolation, due to the state of the roads

Set deep within the High Atlas mountains of Morocco, the village of Asni is quiet after sunset when the dry air turns bitterly cold. While the people of Asni sleep, one young woman — Ghita Moulid — remains awake.

The blue light from her old laptop illuminates her face as she diligently takes notes from the screen. The 20-year-old university student sits on the floor, huddled in blankets and rugs against the cold.

She is inside a makeshift study room, made with the help of her parents — long wooden poles prop up a patchwork mix of traditional rugs and blankets, in a home-made lean-to against the side of her house.

The lean-to is one of two areas around Moulid’s house with an internet connection. She will have to sit here — or on her roof — if she wants to access her online materials for her university studies.

Normally, Moulid would be at university in Casablanca, but she went back to her village in May following Morocco’s lockdown that began March 20.

Restrictions are now lifting, but schools and universities are closed until at least September. It remains unclear how or in what form classes will restart.

The coronavirus pandemic is not unique in the way that it hits those with the least privilege the hardest. The divide between those with digital tools and access to technology and those without has meant that the rich have moved their lives online, while the poor have watched their income, education and social lives grind to a halt.

According to the World Economic Forum, just over half of households worldwide do not have access to the internet and the digital divide affects women more than men.

While the digital divide is not specific to Morocco, only 49.7% of Moroccans had access to the internet in 2017.

Although Moulid can access the internet from outside her house, the connection is nowhere near strong enough to upload large files — like the recent video coursework for her business management degree.

“It takes a strong connection [to upload] a video and in my village we don't have that connection,” Moulid told Al-Monitor. “So my father [woke up] with me at 6 a.m. and we walked 14 kilometers [to find a connection].”

It took Moulid and her father three hours to walk the 9 miles to find a strong enough internet connection to submit the coursework.

Access to a stable internet connection is not just affecting university students. At the onset of the lockdown and secondary schools closing their doors, the Moroccan government created online educational resources for affected students.

“Having amazing online education is great, but it's useless if you can't access it,” Sonia Omar, fundraising and communications manager for the charity Education for All, told Al-Monitor. According to Omar, the Moroccan government did televise some lessons, but many students found it difficult to find out when the lessons were broadcast.

Education for All helps young women gain an education by providing boarding houses near schools for the girls to stay in. Schools are often too far for girls based in rural areas to walk to every day, and in these areas they are often expected to help around the house instead of going to school. 

“If you live in Marrakech and you are part of a fairly wealthy family, you probably have your own devices. You probably have broadband internet at home. In [rural] Morocco some of these girls don't even have their own room for studying,” Omar added.

“In my opinion they are forgotten,” Khadija Oukattou, a house mother at one of Education for All’s boarding houses, said about her students. She told Al-Monitor that the government is doing its best, but admitted that some were left behind during this crisis. “[The government] is not here. They do things in other places in the cities, in places near the cities, but our area needs a lot of attention.”

Speaking through an interpreter, Oukattou noted, “Many of [the students] don't have their own devices. Even if they have a phone, they can't really afford an internet connection. Or they have limited call data without being able to connect to the internet because they live so remotely.”

Moulid’s village is in the High Atlas region of Morocco, where illiteracy rates are estimated as high as 90%. According to the World Bank, only 26% of Moroccan girls in rural areas enroll in secondary school.

For these girls, getting an education is already rare. The coronavirus lockdown that has been in effect for nearly six months has caused a vast educational gap that will be hard to close.

Education for All attempted to solve this problem by raising money to buy tablets and data for students so they could continue their studies during the lockdown. Only 25 final year students out of the organization's 230 beneficiaries received a tablet — the rest will need to wait until school reopens to resume their education.

For many students the lockdown means no education or contact with teachers for at least six months. Education for All has started another fundraising campaign so that all the students in their final two years of study will receive a tablet for home study.

Both Omar and Oukattou are certain there are things that the government could do to support the girls. “We understand this is a very new situation; however, we hope that they will take into account [these girls] and provide more support,” Oukattou said.

Omar added, “There are practical things they could do — such as make devices available, subsidize internet costs or even offer free internet access so that girls can study and poor families can stay connected.”

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